Maxed Out

Sandra Chapman/13 Investigates

Indianapolis - Firefighters throughout the city are facing new alarms, and it's personal. A new study reveals emotional and physical job demands, and even the lack of sleep, pushing them to the limit.

For three months,13 Investigates has gone behind the scenes at IFD for a close-up look at the findings and firefighters maxed out.

Bells tolled in honor of Thomas M. Donoghue, John Riggin Jr.,and more than 70 Indianapolis firefighters who died in the line of duty at a recent IFD memorial service. But 13 Investigates found it isn't just fire killing them. The number one assault on firefighters is heart attack and stroke.

Nationwide, 100 firefighters die each year and nearly half are from heart problems.

"Both my heart surgeon and my cardiologist said I would have been dead within two weeks," said IFD Battalion Chief Dan Hansman. He narrowly escaped "the list" in 2004.

Hansman thought he was in good shape until his annual job fitness test. He was rescued from what doctors predicted as certain death.

"I had quadruple bypass. I had four blocked arteries," Hansman told 13 Investigates. "This job is hard on people's hearts," the 40-year veteran declared.

A new study now in the hands of IFD warns there are likely others. Men and women in the ranks put their lives on the line through physical and emotional job stress, but most surprising is that lack of sleep can also contribute to major health problems.

"We don't want them to do this for 10 or 15 years and then die," said Dr. Jim Brown, PhD, who led the study.

Brown, an Indiana University researcher, spent six months monitoring heart rates of firefighters at Station 10. He wired them up with a high tech vest for the entire 24-hour shift. He found answers to what public safety officials have long questioned: How much is too much?

According to Dr. Brown, "Forty-eight hours on duty is probably just about as much as anybody can stand," he said.

It's not just at busy stations. Dr. Brown says a fire run with entrapment is enough to send a firefighter to the max.

Take Mother's Day morning, when a young woman and her two children were trapped in an upstairs bedroom in their burning home. Ladder 10's Gerald Schneidt went to the roof, with flames lapping out.

"I went in the window, went to the floor and the one child was laying there on the floor," Schneidt told 13 Investigates. "I knew I was over my maximum heart rate because you know my chest was pounding, my head was pounding. My throat felt like my heart was wanting to jump out of my throat," he recalled.

Twice he went in and made two rescues. The third time, his air tank was dangerously low. His blood pressure was spiking.

"You're aware of it, yes. But you've got to make that attempt," he said without apology.

The mother and children later died.

Heart monitors revealed Gerald and his crew working at 100 percent of their capacity for more than 20 minutes. Two hours after the dispatch Gerald's heart was still pumping at near maximum levels.

"It could possibly kill you. It could trigger a heart attack, it could trigger a stroke," added Dr. Brown.

But the stress doesn't stop there or when the lights go out. The study also confirms firefighters miss out on critical sleep that help their bodies recoup. They're not recovering it all on their days off either.

The findings served as a wake-up call for IFD's union.

"Firefighters are in terribly bad health at the fire station just because we don't get the proper sleep," said Local 416 President Michael Reeves of the Indianapolis Professional Firefighters Union.

"Just the anticipation of that alarm causes them to have a poor quality of sleep," said Brown.

Firefighters like Schneidt says the findings confirm what they've suspected all along. "And that's why even if we don't do any runs all night long, if we're able to 'sleep all night,' we're still tired the next day," reasoned Schneidt.

"Sleep dysfunction is very closely related to high risk for heart disease, (and) stroke," Brown added.

It also increases the risk for on-the-job injuries.

In 2007, the Indianapolis Fire Department had 204 firefighters hurt on duty, two of them heart related. To date in 2008, three firefighters have suffered on-the-job attacks.

13 Investigates also discovered IFD ladder companies running short staffed, with the same expectations and work loads.

The National Fire Protection Association says that's "playing with fire."

"Anytime you go below the standard, it's additional risk. It's increasing risk for the firefighters and for the community," said Sanders. "There's no way to shortchange fire protection, you just can't get away with it in the long run," he cautioned.

Sanders says fire departments all across the country need money. But he says it's up to city leaders to enforce safety.

"There is no standard that I'm aware of that has anything to do with overtime, how many hours in a row a firefighter can work," he told 13 Investigates.

Right now IFD allows firefighters to work up to 48 hours straight. But the department wants more data on the impact of back-to-back shifts to see if a bonus day off every third shift (a Kelly day) helps.

Since 1996, IFD has joined nine big city departments including FDNY to try to improve firefighter health.

Coming up, Sunday morning at 7:00 am on Sunrise, 13 Investigates takes you inside for a closer look at fit for duty testing at IFD.