Fit as a firefighter

Be still my beating heart – The water rescue raft is on its way

In the anatomy section of my website I explain how important it is to exercise your heart regularly so that it is ready to push hard at the next big fire just like the pump on a fire truck. The heart is responsible for delivering valuable oxygen, sugar and other nutrients to the cells of every tissue that makes up our body. Oxygen carried by Red Blood Cells is needed so that a mini engine inside each cell produces energy by burning fuel (sugar).

PiratesWhen you have done strenuous activities such as fighting a fire, you go beyond everyday muscle function and create microscopic injuries to your body, making the heart work harder and increasing the demands for oxygen. Cells in our tissue use the oxygen and spew out Carbon Dioxide (CO2) as the normal waist product, but when air does not come quick enough (a simplified explanation), the body produces Lactic Acid as a by-product instead of the CO2. When you are out of breath and unable to carry on a conversation (the Talk Test) you have crossed a line into acid production called the Lactic Acid Threshold. Regular strenuous exercise raises the level of acid your body can handle and to get this acid out of the system the body needs time to rest so that an acid buffering system can kick in and neutralize it. Often a fire doesn’t offer you that time or the tough-guy part of the brain (Neanderthalis-thump-on-chestis) says, “go grab a new air tank” and you skip rehab.

Rushing back in early is really a bad idea and here’s why. Part of your brain may be willing to perform its next task but often the Scientist part of your brain (Rocketscientistis-Geekis) screams “Your not 18 anymore, work smarter not harder!” Of course the tough guy part of the brain ignores the advice and runs past headed for disaster with what he thinks is a fully topped up bottle, but in reality it is half full! You may be fooled into thinking your OK after a short rest but the Lactic Acid is still in your blood. It is easily topped up at the next situation requiring hard work, thus causing your muscles to stop working and ending your next task sooner than you thought possible. The gym is the place to practice pushing into this “Lactic Acid Threshold”, not the fire ground. You must learn to recognize when your body is getting that out-of-breath feeling at a fire and pace yourself, a hard thing to practice in the heat of battle.

Lets say you did push yourself to near exhaustion and some smoke was taken into your lungs when your mask happened to “fall off” during overhaul or when the wind changed direction. I know it is important to look the part of a firefighter with a smoke smudged face, but for the love of your family keep the mask on and just do the old trick of smudging dirt on your face when no one is looking (not speaking from experience of course).

The good thing is that your Red Blood Cells are like trillions of whitewater rescue rafts floating down that red river of blood in your arteries BUT each RBC has only a limited amount of seats. The RBC rescue raft loves to have oxygen on those seats to help you out of a jam. The problem is, by-products of smoke like Cyanide, Carbon Monoxide and Hydrogen Sulfide are very devious and throw the much-needed oxygen overboard in order to take their seats or interfere with process of delivering oxygen. These poisons are so strong, they are there until the ride is over, making oxygen unavailable, asphyxiating and choking the life out of your cells. Some poisons even take a sneaky route, bypassing the lungs and entering the body through the skin.

When smoke and the invisible by-products of combustion are taken in, you will be easily fatigued, light headed, almost like your suffocating, or perhaps feel like you are just having a bad day at the fire-office and not up to par. In reality, if you take in smoke or invisible gases, you’re poisoned. How much your body is poisoned is the question. You may not even realize this is happening to you and then add to it your own body’s acid by- products from the hard work you perform, and you now have the perfect firefighting storm. You can pump all the oxygen in you want after you go down for the count, but some of those poisons will never give up the seats until new blood cells are made which takes time, time you do not have, and/or an antidote is given to combat the poisoning that is occurring inside you. No one may be able to notice or recognize these signs unless someone is looking for them at each fire.

Firefighters need the CO monitor on them in Rehab and given Oxygen ASAP if showing signs of elevated CO (hopefully some of the RBC’s have seats available that didn’t get exposed). Be wary when the firefighter who may have been exposed to smoke start to show signs and symptoms of fatigue, light-headedness, dizziness, confusion, increasing heart rate and collapse from what appears to be a heart attack. These same symptoms may occur later on at the station or at home so tell someone right away if you’re not feeling well and get to the hospital ASAP (see my article on electrolytes to rule that out). Get treated for Carbon Monoxide poisoning and exposure to Cyanide Gas and Hydrogen Sulfide and make sure the hospital is aware that some Cyanide antidotes actually make things worse when given to a person with Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Ensure your city has the correct antidote.

Remember to keep your heart tuned up with exercise, pace yourself at a fire to keep from getting out of breath and unable to talk. Wear your SCBA mask in overhaul and lastly, Decon your skin and clothing immediately after each fire. Do all these things to ensure those RBC rescue rafts are pumped up with air!

Stay safe.

Scott Miller