How many flights of stairs could you climb laden with 75 pounds of gear? Could you make it up one flight? How about 45 floors, for a total of 862 steps?

Firefighters from the Nashville area in Tennessee convened on Saturday, November 2, 2019, at the 505 Building in full turnout gear to raise funds for first responders killed by lung disease. Their goal? Conquer those unthinkable 45 flights while wearing their helmets, boots and masks and carrying full firefighter regalia.

The event benefitted the American Lung Association as part of its Fight for Air Climb and furthered the mission of raising awareness of lung disease among firefighters.

The Effect of Lung Disease on Firefighters

It’s easy to sympathize with the cause. The Fight for Air Climb welcomes first responders from everywhere around the globe — plus individuals and corporate teams. Their goal is to help people better understand the risks firefighters take — and to honor those we’ve lost in the course of their duties.

Consider the harmful effects of breathing secondhand smoke. Now imagine walking into a cigarette the size of a two-story building day after day. That’s the kind of exposure firefighters face as they battle to save our homes and lives.

Cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters. Rates of a severe form of lung cancer called malignant mesothelioma doubles among these responders. This condition typically results from exposure to burning asbestos. They also experience higher rates of prostate and urinary tract cancer and develop diseases younger than age 65.

Many jurisdictions have reported an increase in cancer diagnoses among firefighters in recent years. Although authorities have made improvements to reduce toxin exposure, they have significant work to do in improving safety.

Over 20,000 structure fires take place each year. When buildings burn, they release harmful particulates and chemicals into the air. Smoke generated from products made of carbon and nitrogen releases toxic hydrogen cyanide when ablaze. About 60% to 80% of all fire deaths occur due to smoke inhalation, and officials now believe the chemical plays a far more significant role than previously thought. Materials that release hydrogen cyanide when burned include common insulation materials.

Firefighters Are Among the Most Physically Fit People

For many people, working out is a matter of maintaining our health and physical appearance. For firefighters, staying fit is a matter of life and death.

The very nature of firefighting demands that these professionals maintain peak physical condition. A firefighter who can’t keep up with his colleagues creates safety hazards in the field. They face injury, and they could lead co-workers into danger if they become stranded. These individuals need to maintain fitness for duty at all times.

It is an understatement to say these pros are no strangers to the weight room or the rigors of cardo. However, stair-climbing presents unique challenges, as anyone who has ever huffed and puffed up a flight carrying a laundry basket can tell you. Walking down stairs burns anywhere from 175 to 275 calories per hour, depending on your weight. However, going up burns anywhere from 530 to 835 calories per hour. Plus, it fires up your quads and hamstrings, giving you great definition.

You can test how many flights you can walk up easily. To make it harder, carry a set of 5-pound hand weights with you. Now imagine climbing 45 flights with 75-pounds strapped to your back. That’s what the Fight for Air Climb is all about — putting yourself in a firefighter’s boots.

Lung Cancer Isn’t the Only Threat

Many people automatically think of cancer when they think of diseases affecting the lungs. Indeed, the “Big C” ranks as one of the most severe conditions. However, other health conditions adversely impact the quality of life for many firefighting heroes:

  • Bronchitis: This condition refers to inflammation of the bronchial tubes — the passageways that carry air to the lungs. Bronchitis causes coughing and shortness of breath. You might spit up mucus, especially if an infection is the cause. While bronchitis isn’t often fatal, it makes activities of daily living difficult.
  • Pneumonia: This refers to a severe infection of the lungs. Pneumonia can stem from bacteria or viruses. In aspiration pneumonia, solid matter enters the lung, such as when someone breathes in vomit. Pneumonia can prove fatal, especially in the elderly or children.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): COPD is actually a group of lung diseases, including emphysema and refractive asthma. Emphysema occurs when the walls within your alveoli harden. The alveoli are sacs that absorb oxygen into the bloodstream. When these walls grow stiff, you get short of breath. In refractive asthma, regular medications used to treat the condition, such as inhalers, fail to open the airway. People with COPD can live healthy lives. However, they should avoid smoking and may need to use supplemental oxygen.

Honoring Those Who Protect and Serve

Firefighters need to maintain peak physical health to stay safe on the job while saving others. Activities like the Fight for Air Climb can ensure these heroes get the resources they need when their work makes them ill.

The event gathers together hundreds of participants each year, all of whom arrive eager to race up the stairs and further a worthy cause. Additional festivities commence afterward each year, with the American Lung Association throwing an after-party complete with live musical performances, locally brewed beer and all kinds of fun for every member of America’s extended firefighting family.

It’s easy to see why events like this are so necessary in America. Even the first responders on September 11, 2001 — who may experience dire health problems for the rest of their earthly lives — languished in limbo for years before Congress figured out how to build a functional healthcare fund for them.

The Fight for Air Climb and events like it are there to raise the profile of these genuine homegrown heroes. You can learn even more at the official Fight for Air Climb website.

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About Author

Kate Harveston covers social justice and human rights issues. She graduated with a Bachelors in English and minored in Criminal Justice, so she enjoys writing about anything related to the intersections of law, politics and culture. For more of her writing, you can visit her blog, Only Slightly Biased.

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