Skidmore College has been awarded a $994,342 federal Homeland Security grant to research cardiac deaths caused by stress and elevated thermal conditions experienced by firefighters.
“We are really excited about it,” said Patricia Fehling, chairwoman of the college’s exercise science department.
“We are going to be very busy for the next two years,” Fehling said Thursday during a phone interview.
Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-Hudson, announced the “Assistance to Firefighters” grant Thursday afternoon.
The research will be conducted at Skidmore College by a team led by Fehling and Denise Smith, also of the exercise science department.
“I am pleased to announce this grant for such important research for our first responders,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “I am supportive of anything that helps protect the health and well being of our local heroes.”
Fehling said the college applied for the Homeland Security grant last November in a competitive process.
“We are putting together a research team,” Fehling said.
She said that the college will have outside partners in the project, including the Foster Miller Co., which will design a special “physiological monitoring shirt” for the research.
The shirt, which will monitor heartbeat and heart rate among other things, will be worn by individuals during laboratory tests.
The test subjects will wear nearly 40 pounds of firefighting gear over this monitoring shirt.
Several Skidmore College students will also be part of the research team, Fehling said.
“We will be looking at heart rate variability,” Fehling said.
She said the research will tell the scientists what part of the subject’s nervous system is controlling the heart rate and adrenaline surge.
Smith is currently conducting research at the Fire Service Institute of the University of Illinois.
Smith does laboratory research at Skidmore College and then takes that research to the Fire Service Institute for live testing in the institute’s “burn building.” Fehling said the institute has a specially constructed building that simulates conditions of a building on fire.
“It gets quite hot in there,” Fehling said.
The U.S. Fire Administration says that cardiac-related events are responsible for between 40 percent and 50 percent of the line-of-duty deaths among firefighters.
This high cardiac fatality rate is considered to be a crisis in the firefighting community and has prompted considerable attention from organizations such as the International Association of Firefighters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Volunteer Fire Council and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, according to a statement from Gillibrand’s office.
One of the questions the Skidmore College research hopes to answer is “how does the body respond to that stress [of firefighting],” Fehling said.
Part of the project will be to determine what role a firefighter’s physical fitness plays in cardiac events.
The scientists will study and compare aerobic fitness training with strength training, such as weight lifting, Fehling said.
“We are eager to get going on it,” Fehling said about the research project. She said the summer is a good time to start a research project because the professors don’t have as many classes to teach.
More from The Daily Gazette: