PITTSBURG — Pittsburg State University students cheered on firefighter Justin Ziesenis as he walked on a treadmill at rigorous inclines with his gear on.
Ziesenis was being assessed for his cardiorespiratory fitness, part of exercise science students’ research project.  
The research — which began a month ago and will continue until the end of the semester — is being led by PSU Assistant Professor Allison Barry, PhD. This project is a spin-off of her previous firefighter research.
“We are trying to see how his body utilizes oxygen,” she said, “which is important because the number one cause of death in firefighters is some cardiac death.”
Ziesenis is one out of several firefighters from the Pittsburg Fire Department who are being evaluated to see how their bodies utilize oxygen.
The firefighters are hooked up to a metabolic cart which assesses the cardiovascular system — the very same that NASA uses. Wearing their gear simulates on-the-job tasks. 
Other components of the students’ testing are body composition and the firefighters’ physical activity they perform throughout the day by using a research-grade activity tracker — similar to a Fitbit.
The data collected will be used to look at wellness initiatives in firefighters, Barry said.
“We want to look at ways to improve fitness levels if need be and to make them that they are better able to serve the community,” Barry said. “They protect the city, they deserve everything that we can give back because they do a job that is far riskier than ours.
“They are a population that should be better served than what they currently are.”
According to Barry and PSU student Mohan Perumal, the best part of the project is that firefighters give different responses. The students’ research usually focuses on other students and faculty members who are typically in the same population. “With firefighters, it’s a different response because it’s an occupational specific task,” Barry said.
Perumal agreed.
“This gives us so much more experience that you wouldn’t really find anywhere else,” he said. “Because one, we are working with outside populations, and two, a specific population, the firefighters.”
According to Perumal, firefighters have a higher risk of sudden onset cardiac death, because they go from resting to a high rate of intensity, he said.
Starting with a resting heart rate, adding on the gear and then the heat, “is a big strain on their heart,” Perumal said. “We are going to do anything we can to help.”
“There’s very limited research on firefighters, they are a population that serves the community, but no one serves them. Our goal is to better serve them, to serve themselves and to serve the community.”
— Stephanie Potter is a staff writer at the Morning Sun. She can be emailed at spotter@morningsun.net or follow her on Twitter @PittStephP and Instagram @stephanie_morningsun.