Collaborative effort at WMU supports health and safety of firefighters

Contact: Chris Hybels

Igor Lapa, a on-call firefighter for Cooper Township, has his hearing tested at Sindecuse Health Center as part of his annual physical.

Dr. Mike Miller measures Igor Laba's grip strength during his fitness test.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University's Department of Human Performance and Health Education (HPHE) and WMU Sports Medicine Clinic joined Sindecuse Health Center to conduct annual physical examinations for 108 firefighters. Between May 14-17, firefighters from the Mattawan, Oshtemo, Cooper and Texas Township fire departments traveled to the health center for physical screenings. Firefighters also completed chest x-rays, diagnostic ultrasounds and fitness testing. 

Required annually, the purpose of the physicals is to reduce the risk of injury, illness or death to firefighters and to insure they are medically fit for duty. By assessing a firefighter's overall health and fitness, potential health problems can be identified and addressed before they lead to complications during fire emergencies. Additionally, the physicals establish baseline health reading for future comparisons. 

"Firefighters have demanding physical and mental stresses associated with their profession," says Dr. Mike Miller, professor of exercise science and a former firefighter. "In addition, the firefighter gear is heavy and cumbersome, and difficult to move efficiently, and add the heat from a fire, the exertion extolled on them can be extreme on the body. Annual physical and fitness testing can identify potential risk factors or medical conditions that can be addressed, to keep them healthy and ready for their jobs."

Using x-rays, medical staff at Sindecuse can detect abnormalities in organs.

The collaboration between the fire departments and Western was made possible by Kristen Smith, a former athletic trainer at WMU. As part of her current involvement with the Texas Township fire department, she along with other area firefighting departments and townships decided to write a proposal to find local skilled providers that could provide resources and services necessary to help meet their safety culture needs. Reaching out to Sindecuse and having the proposal approved to provide exams, she then contacted the WMU Sports Medicine Clinic, HPHE and Miller given his background, to assist in conducting fitness tests. 

"Kristen approached us about it and asked if we would be interested because firefighter physicals have been partial out to different places and wanted to do everything under one roof," says William Arbogast, director of the WMU Sports Medicine Clinic. "We primarily focus on having employees and students, so we looked at what they (fire departments) needed and brought those things to Sindecuse."

Dr. Gayle Ruggiero, medical director of Sindecuse Health Center, adds "first responders always have a special place in the hearts of health care providers and building this program was as much about giving back to our community as it was about the gratitude and camaraderie that we feel towards those that take on risks daily selflessly for others." 


Igor Lapa, a on-call firefighter for Cooper Township, had his annual physical done at Sindecuse Health Center.

Hosting the physical examinations at WMU will also provide faculty and students the opportunity to conduct research on the health impacts of the profession. By collecting data from physical screenings and fitness tests, they'll be able to compare firefighter's health each year.

While similar research has been conducted before, Miller says they'll be looking at the data from a unique perspective.  

"Most of firefighter health information in the research/literature is based upon full-time firefighters and while we do have full-time firefighters part of these fire departments, we have more paid-on-call firefighters, and this type of firefighter actually constitutes the majority of firefighters in the country," explains Miller. "Examining potential differences in the health and physical attributes of those who are full versus part-time will provide us with new research perspectives." 

Dr. Timothy Michael, professor of exercise science, adds, "for someone to participate and be a firefighter, they're putting themselves at risk and putting other people at risk if they can't physically do the job. Once we start looking at the data there might be a big discrepancy between the fitness levels of the on-call versus the full time and then you have to start asking the questions whether that impacts their ability to do the job."

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