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The demands on a firefighter’s body are formidable. Even excepting the possibility of fire-related death, the physical demands can be deadly.

According to Northern Arizona Healthcare’s Verde Valley Medical Clinic Occupational Medicine Director Jason Wesley, the No. 1 killer of firefighters in the U.S. is cardiovascular disease — a trait they share with the rest of the nation, but which is exacerbated by the quick response to stress required by the job.

Fortunately for local firefighters, a new fitness test has become available to the NAH VVMC Occupational Medicine team. Thanks to a grant proposed from within the Sedona Fire District and funded through the Northern Arizona Healthcare Foundation, Wesley’s team now has access to VO2 Max Cardio Coach testing. VO2 Max measures the capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen during physical exercise.

“The exam involves a graded treadmill test in which exercise intensity is progressively increased while measuring ventilation, oxygen and carbon dioxide concentration of the inhaled and exhaled air,” a Nov. 18 press release from NAH stated. “With the VO2 Max unit and software, physicians can see when the individual being tested is at maximum
exertion and reaches anaerobic threshold.”

Wesley has been working with local firefighters — including crew members from SFD, Cottonwood Fire Department and Verde Valley Fire District — for two years after representatives of the organizations sought him out for permanent occupational care. Familiar with firefighter-related medical issues from years working in the emergency department, Wesley reviewed national firefighter standards and began building an exam around them.

“It was a natural fit,” Wesley said. “They’re a good group of guys to work with and they’re generally a healthy population. They want to stay healthy. They’re motivated to make positive change when necessary.”

“Dr. Wesley was instrumental, going above and beyond getting educated about what firefighters do,” VVFD Chief Nazih Hazime said. “He’s kind of like our firefighter district physician .... The key is to identify health concerns early and get treatments.” According to Hazime, the process has already proven its worth by alerting when a firefighter is at risk of medical complications.

CFD Chief Mike Kuykendall echoed Hazime’s sentiments, saying that Wesley has become the main doctor addressing firefighter medical needs in the area. The new equipment, he added, is an important tool to evaluate firefighter fitness and ensure higher levels of safety.

SFD Chief Kris Kazian said that until now testing anaerobic threshold has been imprecise. “This equipment will truly be able to measure that capacity,” Kazian said. “Dr. Wesley and the VVMC occupational medicine program have been excellent to work with. They’ve been progressive in making sure they’re aware of the firefighter standards, facilitating our continued pursuit of excellence.”


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