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Helping firefighters stay safe

Glen Selkirk: It was staggering to me how few minds were working to keep these people safe.

When a loose spark or a forgotten cigarette sets off a fire, we have people we can call who rush to help. While everyone else runs away, it’s firefighters who run towards the blaze, risking life and limb to put out the fire and rescue the people who may be inside.

It’s a dangerous job, but for the last 15 years, Dr. Glen Selkirk, who teaches in the Kinesiology program at the University of Guelph-Humber, has made it his mission to keep them safe. He’s conducted studies on firefighter stress responses, how they manage heat stress and heat illness, and most recently, with support from the UofGH Research Grant Fund, he’s investigated their susceptibility to chemical exposure.

“These are people whose job it is to keep the public safe. It’s a noble profession,” Dr. Selkirk says. “It was staggering to me how few minds were out there trying to keep these people safe.”

In the year 2000, Dr. Selkirk was working as a researcher when Toronto Fire approached DND looking for help with their new gear. Until just a few years prior, firefighters had worn long rubber raincoats and boots that focused on keeping them dry, but they now had new outfits, called bunker gear, that were instead made to be heat resistant. The new bunker gear was made to be breathable, allowing water and sweat to evaporate out of their clothes, and as a result, firefighters were able to get closer to and deeper into fires. Getting closer meant getting hotter, and now heat stress was a growing problem.

Dr. Selkirk’s research into the subject led to changes, and soon firefighters were allowed to wear shorts under their bunker gear instead of long pants.

“From a heat stress perspective, it was a big improvement. A lighter base layer under their bunker gear made the firefighters much more heat tolerant,” he says. “But, it may be something of a double-edged sword.”

Because bunker gear is designed to be breathable, it means that vapour can get out of the suit, and soot can get in. As many materials commonly found in houses combust, they release harmful chemicals that get trapped in soot and can land on a firefighter’s skin. A growing body of research has shown that prolonged exposure to this soot can increase the risk for cancer.

Dr. Selkirk’s newest research sought to find a better way to keep them safe. He and his team of student research assistants had a team of firefighters wear different equipment configurations as they worked to put out manufactured fires. They wanted to determine which mix of gear offers the best chemical protection while still holding up to the heat.

They measured heart rates, core temperatures, urine samples, and swabbed the firefighters’ chests, forearms, shins and thighs for chemical exposure. While some of their biological analyses are still pending, Dr. Selkirk says their current results point to the importance of shorts, mixed with a waterwell, an elastic enclosure that wraps around the boot.

“From a thermoregulatory standpoint, it was clear who was hotter. You didn’t have to ask, you could see it in their faces,” says Dr. Selkirk. “But because of that, the waterwell is an important configuration.”

With a waterwell, soot can no longer travel up the pant leg and reach skin, which will presumably reduce chemical exposure.

“Of course, this is only one piece of the puzzle. Just because they’re getting higher exposure doesn’t mean they’re getting more cancer,” Dr. Selkrik says. “If they’re following proper industrial hygiene and showering directly after, it won’t affect them nearly as much.”

Along with helping make firefighters safer, Dr. Selkirk’s studies have also given Sarah Floyd, 4th-year Kinesiology student, insight into the research process.

Sarah’s currently writing her research thesis on firefighter health and is supervised by Dr. Selkirk. Using a subset of their firefighter data, Sarah is looking to get a picture of how the health of Ontario firefighters compares to their American colleagues, as well as how it compares to the health of the Canadian public in general.

“The whole process has been completely eye-opening. There are so many moving parts and putting it all together seems overwhelming” she says. Nonetheless, her research so far has shown some surprising results.

“We’re looking at the healthy worker effect. When there are physical and fitness requirements to get into a job, the people entering it are typically in better shape and less prone to disease, and the assumption is that they’ll stay that way for the rest of their lives,” she says. “In the American cohort, that’s not happening, and we see increased rates of cancer and heart attacks. If that’s what’s happening in the US, we wanted to find out if the same thing is happening here.”

It’s too soon to draw any definitive conclusions from her work, but Sarah is certain about one thing.

“Taking part in this research has been excellent and I’m really happy to have Dr. Selkirk as a mentor. I’d highly recommend it to anyone.”

Learn more about research at UofGH.