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Grad Student’s Research Focuses on Firefighter Fitness

photo of firefighters at challenge
Participants in the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge were from places such as New Zealand, Germany, Chile, and the U.S and Canada. They represent the top one percent in physical ability among firefighters.

Doctoral student Anssi Saari wasn’t sure how he, as a researcher, would be received, but he could not pass up the chance that came his way last semester. His faculty advisor at the University of Kentucky, Dr. Mark Abel, had connections that enabled Saari to conduct behind-the-scenes research during the Scott Firefighter World Challenge XXVI, where firefighters are put through a gauntlet of occupational physical tests.

The competition, which aired on ESPN 3, brought some of the world’s most powerful firefighters to Jeffersontown, Ky. The competitors, hailing from places such as New Zealand, Germany, Chile, and the U.S and Canada, represent the top one percent in physical ability among firefighters.

Saari, who is working toward a doctorate in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion in the UK College of Education, was there to collect physical data and administer questionnaires about how the competitors trained for the event. The researchers use the data to attempt to predict the firefighters’ performance based on the type and intensity of exercise training used to prepare for the competition and ultimately, the demands of the job.

For the project, Saari was at the mercy of how much time the competitors were willing to spend providing him data.

“This competition provided a unique opportunity for conducting research on an important topic,” Abel explained. “Anssi did a great job of developing rapport with the participants. He attended all six days of the competition, even after he completed data collection, to support the competitors and participants in the study.”

Despite the intensity of the competition, a comradery developed among the firefighters. They knew what each other had gone through to reach an elite level. They also likely shared an unspoken knowledge of what they face in real-life situations, while on-duty at their jobs back home.

Saari was thankful to be welcomed into the professional fraternity.

“I got to have conversations with many of them and talk about what they think training should be like,” Saari said. “I told them, if you have any ideas about training or future research, bounce them off me, because it’s important for me to get feedback from people in the field. They are the ones who are going to actually be applying the scientific evidence we provide about their training. I want it to benefit the applicable populations, and that’s something that motivates my work.”

group photo from challenge
Pictured are competitor Dirk Fuhrman, Dr. Mark Abel, Anssi Saari, Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge President Paul Davis, and competitor Ryan Fitzgerald.

Saari was drawn to UK for his doctoral work because of Abel’s interest in conducting research that benefits tactical populations – police officers, firefighters and military personnel. These groups face daunting physical obstacles while on the job, often coupled with intense mental stress. Abel’s research centers on tactical personnel’s physical performance, including how they train, their performance in high-intensity situations, and ways to prevent negative impacts on their physical health.

For firefighters, overcoming obstacles starts the minute they strap on their equipment. Breathing through a respirator decreases their aerobic capacity by about 15 percent. The equipment on their backs weighs 50 pounds. Their sleep schedules can be erratic, due to waking for emergencies in the night.  On top of that, 80 percent of firefighters are overweight or obese.

“These factors make even mundane tasks so much more difficult,” Abel said. “Imagine running a 5 kilometer race under these conditions. That’s what fighting a fire can be like. The more fit the firefighters are, the higher their aerobic ceiling is going to be before the respirator reduces it. Being fit increases their tolerance to physical stress.”

Prior to moving to the U.S. for college, Saari, who is from Finland, served for a year in the Finnish military, which is compulsory for all men in his home country. Abel has tactical training as well. Before his academic career, he spent time as a firefighter.

Ultimately, they want to provide information to service men and women that will not only make them safer, but also perform at their highest level.

Saari and competitors from Slovenia
UK graduate student Anssi Saari with Scott Firefighter World Challenge competitors from Slovenia.

For this project, Saari took a team of graduate and undergraduate students with him to the competition in Jeffersontown. They recorded physical data of participants, such as height, weight, body measurements and body composition readings.

Blood lactate levels rise during strenuous exercise, so they took those numbers from participants to evaluate the level of anaerobic exertion. The participants also wore heart rate monitors to further assess their level of exertion.

Remarkably, battling blazes isn’t necessarily the biggest health risk for firefighters. The greatest danger can come as the body recovers from the intense physical exertion, heat exposure, and psychological stress associated with battling a structure fire. It’s not unusual to survive a brutal blaze, but have a heart attack back at the station. So, the researchers are looking at heart rate data that came in as the firefighters recovered from their intense exertion.

The research team’s questionnaires asked about specific habits of the firefighters’ training, including their training frequency and intensity, and what type of resistance and endurance training they performed, such as biking, running or rowing.  Ultimately, the researchers will measure those factors against the firefighters’ time in the competition.

“We are looking at the purposefulness of their training,” Saari said. “We are asking questions such as how much thinking and planning goes into their training. Do they record their workouts? Does someone create a workout routine for them? Do they show up to the gym

photo of top finishers in Scott Challenge
The awards ceremony recognized the top male and female finishers in the Scott Firefighter World Challenge

and just lift weights, or is there a preplanned method? We are asking these kinds of questions as a way of trying to see what type of training really relates to performance.”

This type of research allows exercise scientists like Abel and Saari to discover if there is a connection between research findings relating to physical predictors of better performance and training habits in which elite level firefighters are engaging. They credit the competitors at the Scott Firefighter World Challenge and the competition’s director, Dr. Paul Davis, for making this type of research possible for others in their profession.

“It was a really unique experience,” Saari said of conducting the research during the competition. “When you think of research, this is not the typical picture in your head. It’s a great opportunity, I think, for people who are usually in a lab or in a more controlled environment to witness something like this where it’s more of a controlled chaos and you are at the mercy of what participants are willing to do for you and you are not their main focus for being there. The firefighters came to understand why I was there and I wanted to show respect for why they were there as much as possible. Because it is a big deal to be given this opportunity that most likely, on my own, would never have happened.”