When firefighters respond to blazes such as the recent Sun Prairie gas explosion, they face huge risks not only from the fire itself but the smoke and chemicals within it.
One Waunakee company is working with departments across the country to help these responders healthfully recover.
Nutritionist Jen Rudis is the owner of Jenerate Wellness in Waunakee, and in addition to offering coaching and weight management, her Main Street shop includes infrared sauna suites.
Rudis has studied the detoxifying effects on infrared saunas, and those, along with the other health benefits the saunas offer firefighters, are outlined in her booklet, “Train Perform Recover.”
Firefighters are often exposed to highly toxic chemicals from both residential and commercial fires.
“They’re burning hotter, and they’re so much more toxic now,” she said.
Today’s buildings are no longer built solely from wood, brick and mortar but other synthetic materials. Within them are also more electronic devices containing carcinogens, as well, Rudis said.
Crediting Wisconsin’s and Dane County’s departments for ensuring firefighters wear protective gear and have two sets of it, she said that any chemicals that do come in contact with the skin enter the blood stream within 50 to 60 seconds.
The body’s organs designed to detoxify it, such as the liver and kidney, were not designed to take on the increasing number of chemicals firefighters encounter today, she said.
Within the saunas, the infrared heat raises body temperatures, allowing sweat to flush out those toxins. No steam is used in these saunas, Rudis noted.
The community of Watertown recognized a need for an infrared sauna for their fire department.
Rudis said she worked with the department to install an infrared heat sauna in Watertown, where firefighters can detox from chemicals absorbed into the lungs and skin, and also decompress from the highly stressful response.
Assistant Fire Chief and EMS Director Jim Acker said the department initially had been considering a health and wellness program for its first responders.
“We began looking into a cancer prevention initiative,” he said.
Researching the matter, they learned about Jenerate Wellness from the local union president at the time.
“She gave me a wealth of information, more than I could process,” Acker said, referring to Rudis’ extensive knowledge of nutrition, wellness and how saunas help the body.
Acker also found the department needed to update its standard operating guidelines. Lacking was how to address what responders do after a fire scene or at the fire scene, he said.
“We had to put the wheels in motion to get these things going and a policy we had to get in place,” he said.
Other models, such as in Beaver Dam, did include a cancer prevention initiative with the use of infrared sauna, Acker added.
In Watertown, where Rudis helped install the sauna in March, firefighters are not mandated to use it after a fire scene. They can also opt to use it after a workout or for general use.
“The majority who have used it have found success,” Acker said.
Acker asks firefighters to fill out a form indicating how they feel on a scale of one to 10 before and after using it, saying often, the rating improves from a five to a nine or 10.
“They’re like, ‘absolutely, this a great a tool for us, and I’m glad we have it,’” he said.
Acker said he uses it himself after strenuous CrossFit training and feels rejuvenated.
For rescuers who sacrifice so much, Rudis said the emphasis on preventing health risks associated with the occupation is vital.
“I think the health and safety of them should be our No. 1 priority, just as their No. 1 priority is on our safety,” Rudis said.
The saunas can also be used to decompress. They allow muscles to relax, and the warmth floods oxygen into the body to feed it, she said, likening the benefits to the infrared incubators used for premature babies.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety, the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Health Services completed a five year study in 2015 of nearly 30,000 firefighters from Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco that found a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths among that population, according to the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services.
One organization, the Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation, was established in 2004 to provide outreach and support to firefighters and their families.
Rudis said that organization has been instrumental in helping her reach out to departments across the nation as she’s become more passionate about firefighters’ wellness.
“The restorative value, 30 minutes of decompression time, is taking care of body and mind,” she said.