The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

85° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Fight fires with fitness

Firefighters are often in situations that result in debilitating injuries, and the UA is looking to prevent those with a proactive method.

SPIFi, or Strategies to Prevent Injuries among Firefighters, is meant to implement risk management strategies. To do this, the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health has partnered up with the Tucson Fire Department and Johns Hopkins University. The four-year study is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Researchers have been looking at three injury categories including patient transport, fire ground operations and physical exercise, said Gerald Poplin, an epidemiology doctoral student and SPIFi researcher.

“They use these resources in this area of information and they’re willing to work with us,” Poplin said.

To address these injuries, researchers are implementing a risk management process that they found to be effective in coal mining industry research. Poplin, along with one of the primary researchers and a public health professor, Jeff Burgess, decided to try the process for firefighting.

“We have to be physically fit all the time and the injuries that we can get can take us away from our job,” said John Gulotta, the health and wellness captain at Tucson Fire Department. Gulotta has been a firefighter since 1988 and he teaches safety training.

Firefighters are sometimes in awkward positions that often require overexertion of their muscles, which usually leads to sprains or strains, Poplin said.

“They’re forced into a lot of difficult positions where you can’t really get into a good ergonomic (maximum productivity) stance,” he said.

Firefighters may also be more prone to injuries because they work 24-hour shifts, Gulotta said. Sometimes they wake up at 2 a.m. and put on 60 to 80 pounds of gear to fight fires in the middle of the night.

“We’re not in a nice clean environment,” he said. “Our environment is disconjointed and upside down 90 percent of the time, so we can’t always predict what we’re going to get ourselves into.”

But injuries are not the only risk of the job, Gulotta said.

“We are the frontline for exposures to infections,” he said. Those could include hepatitis, HIV or meningitis.

Firefighters also have an increased risk of getting cancer and could be affected mentally, as they deal with people getting hurt and dying all the time, Gulotta said.

“The mental aspect of it is a huge component really of the job itself … but injuries play a huge part of it,” he added.

Poplin is able to find out what injuries are occurring by observing the firefighters on ride-alongs. He can then focus resources for particular job tasks. Poplin said back and joint strains or sprains are the most common injuries in the line of duty.

The first two years of the SPIFi study were focused on identifying hazards and controls. They are now entering the implementation phase, which includes training and standard operation procedures, Poplin said.

One of the things they are looking at doing is cardiopulmonary resuscitation rotation. Since firefighters get fatigued over time from being stuck in confined spaces, CPR is not always as effective as it could be. They now want to institute a regular practice that allows firefighters to rotate who is doing the chest compressions.

The rotation will be approximately every 200 compressions because “it’s a natural stopping point to check vital signs,” Poplin said.
“Hopefully that will help reduce this level of strain that they’re submitted to,” he added.

The study also is looking at improving the rehabilitation scene, which takes place after a fire. Firefighters go into a tent to have their vital signs checked, get water and cool down, according to Poplin. Researchers want to update the protocols and make sure firefighters can recover before going back into a fire.

They also want to better monitor cardiovascular disease, which is the largest line-of-duty death, he said.

“Partnering up with the University of Arizona is so important because we aren’t data-driven people. We aren’t scientists, we’re firefighters,” Gulotta said. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

Gulotta said he likes having researchers look at their line of work because they see it with different eyes. They can offer new opinions to help prevent firefighter injuries.

“Working with the firefighters and the paramedics has been pretty much a joy just because they’re easy to work with. They’re invested in their jobs,” Poplin said.

Like everyone else, firefighters want to be able to enjoy retirement, Gulotta said. They want to prevent injuries the best they can so they will function properly when they retire.

“Really it is a profession in which you have to have the desire to do it because some of the things that we see and do aren’t something that’s for everybody,” Gulotta said. “We will go where other people don’t go and it’s rewarding to know that there are people that will do that.”

More to Discover
Activate Search