Playing with fire…… fighters

I first worked for IOM in the early 1990s when I joined as an ergonomist in 1991.  At that time much of the work in the Human Sciences section was focused on self-contained breathing apparatus and firefighter’s clothing funded by the Home Office.  I was involved in studies looking at both topics led by Drs Richard Love and Richard Graveling.  With these projects, we worked with teams of firefighters that joined us at fire training centres for four days at a time while testing was carried out.  This included treadmill testing to get baseline physiological measures, live fire training exercises, simulated forest fire fighting and making firefighters walk around in circles while wearing non-breathable chemical protection suits.  As the newby, guess who got to clean out the chemical suits?

I have a particular memory of being in a concrete ship in the middle of Gloucestershire in February in very cold weather looking at the misty view across the fields; really enjoying my job.  It was appreciated by the scientific team when the fires were lit and although our monitoring showed temperatures reaching 400°C; it wasn’t that warm on the top of that ship. 

Technology at the time was still mostly paper based (interesting in the rain!) when recording temperature using skin thermistors, aural thermometers and occasionally rectal temperature probes.  When particular points on each exercises were reached, we had to stop the firefighter, ask them to pull cables out of their trousers and take the measures. This often led to some interesting comments.  We also witnessed heat stroke at first hand in two firefighters but the team of medics working with us were immediately there to manage the situation.

I have to admit that when we moved on to using temperature pills which after swallowing send a radio signal out to a receiver, everyone was grateful – especially as the pills didn’t need recovering.  Our monitoring kit included Polar heart rate monitors that were very resilient considering the conditions they were used in and fire kit does get wet from the inside.

There was one point when we did get in trouble with the office.  Testing out new monitoring kit Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade invited us to their firehouse.  When they offered to take us inside in breathing apparatus and full kit I wasn’t going to say no.  It was a good exercise in finding out why I’m not a firefighter – my 30 minute cylinder was drunk down in 10 minutes.  While I can honestly say that I know what it feels like to be a roast chicken in 190°C; once was enough.   Although we may have taken a risk, the professionalism of the firefighters working with us made sure we were not in any danger.

Although our work for the emergency services has changed in the last two decades, there has been a continued connection with our work looking at Firefighters and Cancer as well as helping to develop the good practice guide for managing the menopause for the Fire Brigades Union. 

At IOM we work with a large number of different occupations each of which have worked with us to try and solve specific problems.  The work at IOM has fed into standards and procedures and practice across many industries.  The great thing about this job is you get to see how things are produced, tested and work in practice.  

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