Student's Research Improves Chance of Long Life for Firefighters
Russell Cothren, University Relations
Barry Brown, left, University Professor emeritus of kinesiology, and Marcos Michaelides, who recently earned his doctorate in kinesiology from the University of Arkansas, work with a firefighter as part of research and service a team of faculty and students began in 2003.
Russell Cothren, University Relations
Koulla Parpa, left, and Marcos Michaelides, right, conduct strength testing during their research with Fayetteville firefighters.
Earning a doctoral degree doesn't mean only educating yourself. It's not just about getting a piece of paper that qualifies you for a profession. It also means contributing new knowledge to society. Sometimes, you can make a difference in your community.
In the case of a student from the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus who traveled to the University of Arkansas to study kinesiology, the work behind his doctorate will help keep firefighters safe on the job and healthier overall. The research behind Marcos Michaelides' dissertation has directly benefited firefighters employed by the city of Fayetteville and could have much more far-reaching impact.
Michaelides was one of several students of Barry Brown, now emeritus University Professor of kinesiology, who began working with Fayetteville firefighters in 2003 to improve their health. Brown said Assistant Chief Bud Thompson was the impetus behind his team's work.
"You can't overplay the leadership shown in the Fayetteville Fire Department," Brown said.
More than Numbers
Thompson had returned from a training conference with some sobering statistics on his mind. He had learned that a firefighter was likely to die 10 years earlier than the average man; a fact he was unwilling to accept.
"We want these men to be able to work for a 25- to 30-year career, then retire in good health, to see their grandkids," Thompson said. "Our motivation in working with the university was to give these guys tools to take care of themselves."
Brown's team of graduate and undergraduate students tackled the firefighters' risk of increased heart disease by designing a fitness program for them. The program was designed to lower the stress firefighters face on the job by enhancing their physical abilities. That occupational stress is a major factor in what makes heart attack the No. 1 cause of death for firefighters.
Michaelides and fellow kinesiology students Koulla Parpa and Leigh Jurney conducted the testing and training of more than 60 firefighters. Michaelides and Parpa, a fellow Cypriot, were married during the course of their doctoral work. They met while studying in Budapest. Both worked with elite Hungarian athletes while they were undergraduates.
Within five weeks after they started working with the Fayetteville firefighters, the University of Arkansas team members saw dramatic improvements in endurance and stamina. Based on this initial study, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided $105,000 to fund a five-year training program for the entire Fayetteville Fire Department.
"Between 80 and 85 percent of our guys work out now," Thompson said. "We've installed fitness equipment in the fire stations. That's necessary. One of our newer stations was designed with a gym in it."
Over the ensuing years, Brown and his students conducted more studies, measuring the firefighters' heart rates during a training exercise as well as resting blood pressure rate and the level of oxygen used at maximum effort. They collected saliva samples to measure cortisol, a stress hormone, with their results showing that emotional stress was higher for rookies than for experienced firefighters.
The students, with assistance from undergraduate exercise science student trainers, developed individualized training programs for each participating firefighter, with the goal of encouraging long-term maintenance of exercise habits.
Michaelides next undertook a project in which he examined the relationships between various fitness parameters and performance on an ability test that included a set of simulated firefighting tasks. The work not only made up his dissertation, which he successfully defended in December, but also won first place in a competition sponsored by the American College of Sports Medicine. The award-winning article drawn from Michaelides' dissertation was published in the December edition of Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, a refereed publication of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Authors were Michaelides, Parpa, Brown and Thompson.
The Fayetteville Fire Department designed the ability test to measure the performance of firefighters on simulated conditions that frequently occur during real firefighting conditions, and the department uses it as a criterion for recruiting new firefighters. The tasks were climbing stairs, lifting and moving rolled hoses, moving a weighted sled by hitting it with a sledgehammer, pulling a hose and hooking it to a hydrant, dragging a rescue mannequin and pulling a charged hose, which means water is exerting pressure on the hose.
Michaelides was particularly interested in how fitness parameters such as upper body muscular endurance, upper and lower body strength, cardio endurance, flexibility and body composition contribute to job performance. All of the tasks were timed.
"Timing is so important in firefighting," he said. "Whether they're responding to a fire or a car crash, the survival rate depends on how fast they react, how fast they work."
The test results demonstrated that upper muscular strength and endurance as well as a low percentage of body fat were significantly related to better performances on the set of simulated firefighting tasks. Studies by other researchers have demonstrated the effect of overall fitness on firefighting ability, Michaelides said, but he wanted to examine more closely the contribution of each fitness parameter on the ability to fight fires. He speculated that a firefighter recruit might use the study results to identify weaknesses and improve those fitness parameters before actual testing for a job.
Some area health-care professionals interested in collaborative research with the University of Arkansas worked with Brown and Michaelides last fall on another aspect of the project involving firefighters. Dr. Thad Beck, a physician with Highlands Oncology Groups in Fayetteville, and Michael Leach, whose Fayetteville company Health First Inc. provides health systems development services, were instrumental in arranging for 70 firefighters to undergo a five-minute scan to determine extent of calcium deposits in their coronary arteries.
Calcium deposits are a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease so Michaelides worked with a radiologist at Highlands, which offered the use of its heart scan technology, to determine a calcium score for each firefighter.
In some cases, the noninvasive heart scan can replace the more time-consuming, invasive and expensive heart catheterization procedure in which dye is injected into arteries to show blockages.
People who have two or more risk factors for cardiovascular disease can have the heart scan and possibly head off a more complicated condition that could require treatment by angioplasty in which a narrowed or obstructed blood vessel is mechanically widened. Radiologic technologist Jamie Gladson met with the firefighters in advance to explain the procedure and answer their questions. Following the scans, radiologist Dr. Tom Hinton interpreted the results.
Michaelides said the scans found one firefighter with dangerously high calcium levels.
"He's a young firefighter," Michaelides said. "The test probably saved his life. He was referred to a cardiologist for further diagnostic tests."
Michaelides is hopeful that departments around the country will adopt fitness standards for firefighters when they understand the improved safety and health aspects. Despite National Fire Protection Association guidelines for periodic medical surveillance and the demonstrated intense physical characteristics of firefighting, firefighters are not required to maintain minimum physical capacities or follow exercise training programs, he wrote in the Research Quarterly article.
"It would be great to convince administrators of the need for mandatory fitness programs," he said. "Fire departments need to prepare firefighters for the strenuous work. It could be argued that fire departments should hire only athletes but that would never happen.
"Firefighters are a really nice group of people to work with," Michaelides continued. "They are doing intense work, and it's a field of work that needs further investigation from the fitness angle."
Information for this article was contributed by Barbara Jaquish.
Heidi Stambuck, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions