News / Ottawa

Can't take the heat? Neither can aging firefighters: Study

Older firefighters nearing the end of their careers might think they can take the heat, but a new study suggests otherwise.

The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene published a report on the impacts of heat stress on firefighters compared to non-firefighters.

One might assume that seasoned blaze-battlers are biologically better adapted to hot habitats than their average-Joe colleagues, so Glen P. Kenny tested that theory.

The professor at the School of Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa studied two groups of 51-year-olds: one group of firefighters and another group of equally physically fit non-firefighters.

He led both groups through intensive exercises while exposed to heat and he measured their physiological responses, including core temperatures.

The results surprised him.

“Firefighters and non-firefighters have the same thermal and cardiovascular response (to heat),” said Kenny. “The only difference is their perceived level of physical strain.”

So while seasoned firefighters may think they can take the heat – and psychologically be more comfortable breaking a hot sweat than a non-firefighter – their physiological responses do not differ from others their age.

Kenny said this perception is a “two-edged sword.”

Firefighters should be more psychologically resilient to heat – after all, their jobs require running into burning buildings. But, they might not realize they are just as susceptible to dehydration and fatigue as non-firefighters. They might take more risks, which can lead to injuries.

Kenny said he wanted to study an older age group because, as we age, we lose the ability to dissipate heat. Since firefighters usually retire at about 60 years old, he targeted 51-year-olds.

Kenny said his findings mean there needs to be better industry guidelines for aging employees who work in the heat – not just firefighters, but construction and road workers. The Ottawa fire Service said it would have to review the study before commenting on it.

“We have to protect our older workforce,” he said.

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