Maxed Out - Public Safety - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

Maxed Out - Public Safety

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Sandra Chapman/Eyewitness News Investigators

City firefighters take an oath to protect life and property. But now there's a wake up call at the Indianapolis Fire Department, to protect its ranks from maxing out.

13 Investigates revealed new findings of a federally funded study and takes you behind the scenes of fit for duty testing.

Captain Jim Redd takes a deep breath and pulls on a weight bar with all of his strength for 30-seconds.   He's measuring his upper body strength as part of a medical exam issued to firefighters.
     
Redd, a muscular, peer trainer at I.F.D. performs his task with relative ease.  He is the picture of health and takes fitness to the max.

Each year, he and the city's 900-plus firefighters stare down medical demons at Public Safety Medical.   It's a specialized health facility for the FBI, local police, and firefighters.

"Our goal is to make sure our people are competent and physically able to do their job," explains I.F.D.'s Safety and Training Chief, Robin Nicosin.

In fact, the government says firefighters must pass a rigorous cardiovascular exam to wear a respirator to become and remain on the job.
     
The idea is to catch heart problems during testing, not on a fire ground.

"You would think that you would catch a lot of these problems in the EKGs and that type of thing.  In fact they do," said Russ Sanders, the Central Regional Manager with the National Fire Protection Association

He's right, testing does detect underlying problems, but not always.
 
Public Safety's founder and medical director, Dr. Steve Moffatt says as many as 10-firefighters are pulled from duty each year for failed test.   Another ten to fifteen percent, or 90 to 100 are written an exercise prescription to ward off potential attacks.
 
According to Moffatt, "It's just an unnecessary and totally preventable death."

During standard testing, firefighters are required to work at only 80-percent of their maximum heart rate.  But a new ground breaking study at Station 10 shows firefighters working dangerously beyond what's measured during testing. 
    
Some work at 100-percent of their heart capacity for more than 20-minutes with elevated blood pressure.

"It does concern me," said Moffatt.

The problem is a treadmill test cannot measure the added emotional stress a firefighter faces during a rescue or entrapment.

For Moffatt, the bottom line is: "How long can they work at that 100-percent and how long can they work beyond 100-percent?  That's where we need to get to," he told 13 Investigates.

That answer could help reduce injuries. 
 
In 2007, 204 Indianapolis Firefighters were hurt on the job.  The city paid out more than $616 thousand dollars in workers comp. 

In its effort to get better data, IFD is part of a 10-cities program to improve firefighter health.
   
13 Investigates was allowed a rare peek inside the department's testing ground.

It's an obstacle course simulating tasks at a fire scene.  And timed responses matter.

Every Indianapolis firefighter must undergo a fit for duty test each year.  They must complete 8-different stations within 8-minutes and 44 seconds.

13 Investigates followed Ladder 10's Gerald Schneidt. He's a 20-year veteran who at 54 years old can measure up to Captain Redd.  Not in muscle or size, but fitness.
     
"The quintessential firefighter.  He's not real big, but he's strong," said Dr. Jim Brown, Ph.D., describing Schneidt.     Brown is the researcher who conducted the study at I.F.D.  and tracked Schneidt's performance levels.   Researchers found him working at heart and blood pressure levels that could have flat-lined the less fit.

"I'm an old farm boy so I'm used to working hard -- working in the heat," said Schneidt.   "I was impressed with how long I could go with a high heart rate and not feel really really bad," he told 13 Investigates.
    
But he did make a conscious effort to slow down his breathing.  That tactic worked during the most strenuous part of his obstacle course testing:  the dummy pull.  It's a life-sized dummy simulating an unconscious person firefighters must pull to safety.

"You know that's 175-180 pounds I believe, so that's pretty taxing," Schneidt said moments after taking off his respirator after pulling the dummy around a cone and back.   "I feel good, a little winded but not bad," he added.

Researchers say "burst exercises" like this create a more accurate reading of a firefighter's physiological response on a fire scene.
   
"When I look back 40-years ago, none of that was an issue.  It used to be: 'You light em We'll fight em.'  That was the whole philosophy.  And if we kill a couple of firefighters doing it, then well you know, it's part of the deal," said Sanders as he weighed progress within the Fire Service.  

But some things have yet to change, namely firefighters working tired.

"You know these guys work every third day that means they spend a third of their life with dysfunctional sleep.  At least," said Dr. Brown.

Researchers and trainers agree that this is a big first step in changing the culture of the fire service.

"What's so great about it, it's things we've known but we can actually prove now," explained Battalion Chief Nicosin.   "We can make a difference for the next generation of firefighters," he said with a sense of satisfaction.

The new recruits are told to train often and as if their lives depend on it.   

But it's a good message for firefighters who are already upholding the age old promise.   It's prompting them to renew their commitment to preserve and protect, starting with themselves.

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