Firefighters get fit for health

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Firefighters face a much higher risk of death from heart attack when battling a blaze — up to 100 times the normal rate — and are more likely to be struck even when they’re doing less strenuous tasks, according to a Harvard study published this year.

Heart attacks — not burns or smoke — have long been known to be the most frequent cause of firefighter deaths on the job. But the Harvard study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, establishes the strongest link yet between coronary disease and firefighting duties by examining what firefighters were doing when they were stricken.

Looking at firefighter heart attack deaths nationwide over a decade, the researchers found the risk of heart attack is highest when firefighters are working at a fire scene — with increased odds ranging from 10 to 100 times the normal risk of heart attack. Although firefighters spend only 1 to 5 percent of their time putting out fires, 32 percent of firefighter deaths from heart attacks occur at fire scenes, the study found.

But the chances of a heart attack also are significantly increased when firefighters are responding to an alarm, returning from an alarm or engaging in physical training, according to the researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, who studied 449 deaths.

The study does not identify the specific causes of these job-related attacks or whether firefighters have an overall greater risk of dying from heart problems than the rest of the population but does note the unique hazards of the profession. Not only do firefighters deal with extreme heat and exertion, but they also are exposed to toxic substances and psychological stress.

A 2005 study by the National Fire Protection Association showed more than 70 percent of fire departments lacked fitness and health programs. Previous published research documents a high prevalence of obesity among firefighters. The majority of the nation’s firefighters — about 75 percent — are volunteers.

Heart attacks fell more firefighters

About 100 firefighters die on the job each year, and heart attacks cause about 45 percent of these deaths, a much higher percentage than for other public safety occupations — 22 percent of the on-the-job deaths among police officers and 11 percent for emergency medical workers. Overall, heart attacks account for 15 percent of all deaths that occur on the job.

St. John firefighters are not sitting down on this problem. We have aggressively taken on the challenge to get our firefighters on a wellness program. The parish has supported our decision to start this initiative. Members of the fire department have taken physicals and are getting ready to take a fitness test. We are trying to write some grants to get workout equipment for all of the fire stations along with getting funding to send firefighters to become certified peer fitness trainers. But there is much more to helping firefighters get in shape — nutrition, cholesterol, stop smoking, stress, weight management. We are trying help all firefighters, paid and volunteers, and all of their families in all of these areas. 

We are making a difference in ourselves so we can make a difference in your life.

“Firefighters generally love what they do — the longer we can live healthy, the longer we can continue to do the job we love.”

Michael Heath is president of the St. John Professional Firefighters Association.