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PSU students put firefighters to the test

PSU exercise science students have been working closely with local firefighters to run tests and assess the firefighter’s physical health. These experiments are being conducted specially to determine how the firefighter’s pulmonary and cardiac system perform under pressure similar to what they experience on the job. 

Since the middle of February and until the end of the semester, a team of exercise science students including Mohan Perumal, Samantha Kopp, Evan Hutchison, John Brackett, Carly Adams, and Lily Jefferies have been using a variety of tests on several local firefighters.  

“Mainly, firefighters play a key role in keeping infrastructure, safety, and wellbeing in our city,” said Allison Barry, PSU assistant health, human performance, and recreation (HHPR) professor, who is the lead investigator for the study. “So, we need to keep them safe and help them. So, the best way to do it is to assess their physical fitness that they have to rely on every day in order to protect them while they help protect our city.” 

This is Barry’s first year at Pittsburg State University, and she has coordinated with fire departments in the past at other locations. She wanted to set up this connection with the Pittsburg Fire Department to help teach the department what to be aware of and encourage a physical wellness initiative. 

“Through this, we can give them the means to do it from a research standpoint,” Barry said. “We can tell them what’s already been done in the literature, and now we can implement it into Pittsburg’s department; saying, ‘here are raw numbers, here’s where you stand… how can we help you to improve and better yourself and then in turn, the city’ It’s a domino effect, and you have to start somewhere, so this is where we’re starting.” 

Barry acknowledges the support of the administrators, who helped make this kind of lab possible. Other institutions may not have high-caliber equipment available for student use, but Barry says their administration has been very helpful. 

“A lot of this equipment is funded through the College of Education,” Barry said. “Our deans have been very supportive of this program and continue to be very supportive of it. They understand that this hands-on application is going to transfer our students immediately to jobs right after college or post-secondary education or professional programs. I think that’s important to know, that you have to have support from your administration and that’s what we have.” 

Firefighters volunteered to undergo this testing to determine how their heart and lungs perform while under stress. As a result of the physical demands of their career and the sudden increase of activity, firefighters may commonly have cardiovascular injuries.  

“This is Dr. Barry’s protocol that she developed specifically for firefighters,” said Mohan Perumal, senior in exercise science, who helped oversee the study. “The speed stays the same, but the intensity goes up (every minute). They’re (going to) be climbing stairs, and a bunch of other things that wouldn’t be exactly what someone our age might be doing for light exercise. It’s specifically made for them and it’s individualized per firefighter based on their individual activity. It’s a really good protocol. It only takes about 20 minutes.” 

Perumal plans on pursuing his graduate degree from Pittsburg before getting a doctorate in physical therapy. This study is part of his senior internship. 

“We’re serving them to help serve themselves to serve the community, so it’s just full circle,” Perumal said. “What we put in is what they’re (going to) get, and what they get is what they’ll be able to put out for the community.” 

Several firefighters were willing to help the students with this study. One firefighter was excited to see what he was capable of after recovering from an injury. 

“I love it,” said Taylor Cerne, a 37-year-old who has been on the Pittsburg Fire Department for 14 years. “I really do. It’s hard, it sucks, you feel like crap afterwards, but I love it. Just feeling like I worked as hard as I possibly can, that’s a good feeling. After my first test I didn’t feel like that, I was kind of down on myself, but hopefully I did better on these last couple runs.” 

Prior to attending the three tests, Cerne wore an activity monitor for two weeks, only taking it off to shower or swim. This allowed the students to assess Cerne’s physical activity levels while on and off shift. 

“As they say, ignorance is bliss,” Cerne said. “You don’t know how out of shape you really are until you push yourself as hard as you can. Just telling yourself, you know, one more step, I can go a little bit further, that directly correlates with our job, it’s something real that happens when you’re inside. You have to have that mindset, you know, ‘I’m going all the way.’ You can’t give up. And this is the same deal, you just have to work your butt off.” 

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