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First respondersProtecting first responders from a quiet killer

Published 2 December 2011

Emergency responders in Flagstaff, Gilbert, and Chandler, Arizona recently underwent a battery of medical tests to help minimize the risk of having a stroke or heart attack while in the line of duty; 44 percent of all firefighter deaths were the result of heart attacks, which is the leading killer of firefighters

Firefighters are monitored while performing tasks "under load" // Source: firefightingincanada.com

Emergency responders in Flagstaff, Gilbert, and Chandler, Arizona recently underwent a battery of medical tests to help minimize the risk of having a stroke or heart attack while in the line of duty.

As part of a pilot program, nearly twenty firefighters and police officers took a series of exams including CT scans, blood tests, carotid artery ultrasounds, and glucose tests.

The goal of the Heart Fit For Duty pilot program is to provide additional health checks for firefighters and police officers to detect heart conditions that may not appear in annual physical exams.

The program is critical for saving lives as heart attacks are the leading cause of death for firefighters. In a decade long study, the U.S. Fire Administration found that 44 percent of all firefighter deaths were the result of heart attacks or strokes. In contrast internal and head injuries resulted in 27 percent of deaths and suffocation and burns 20 percent.

According to Kepra Jack, the director of Heart Fit For Duty, firefighters are 300 times more likely to have heart disease.

Experts believe that working in a high-stress environment like a crumbling, smoke filled building along with strenuous physical activity can place a large strain on the heart and exacerbate underlying conditions.

At the Gilbert Fire Department’s Skills Center, firefighters are subjected to a tortuous training course called the Confidence Course, which has been nicknamed the “Claustrophobia Course.” The drill consists of a wooden crawl space that simulates the inside of a building collapse. The walls can be manipulated so the path is unpredictable and a smoke machine along with a sound system fill the tunnel with thick fog and the scream of sirens.

Firefighters are forced to crawl through the tunnel in full gear, which weighs as much as sixty pounds.

Jack said it is this type of stress in real-life scenarios that can lead to heart problems, so it is crucial that we do everything we can to take care of first responders because they take care of us.

Eventually Jack hopes to be able to expand the Heart Fit For Duty Program to all first responders in the area. 

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