March 29, 2022

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Preventing Firefighter Cardiovascular Events

Gordon Graham
Category: Fire & Rescue

Gordon Graham here with Today’s Tip from Lexipol. Today’s Tip is for fire service personnel. And it’s all about you, and each of you, and it’s about cardiac health and medical screening. 

All the ICS training in the world is not going to save a firefighter with undiagnosed heart disease.

Let’s get right to the point. COVID-19 has dramtically skewed firefighter line of duty death statistics. But putting COVID aside,  firefighters today are dying from cardiac events at the same rate as they were in 1998 – which is when NIOSH started the Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. Let’s follow the statistics even further. Every year, all the way back to 1974, nearly 50% of all firefighter deaths are caused by cardiovascular events.  

 Think about that. Half of all firefighter deaths are cardiac-related. Not trapped in a building, not crushed, not due to equipment failure, flashover, vehicle crashes, or roadway incursions. Firefighters are dying because of heart attacks and other cardiovascular events.  

 Many of these deaths are preventable. Not just preventable. Cardio-vascular events are predictable. Just read the executive summaries of NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality reports. The evidence is damning. No medical clearance report on record, undiagnosed cardiovascular disease, or something like this: Decedent has a history of smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, excess body fat, and is physically inactive. Age is also a risk factor.  

 So, what can we do? If you’re in a leadership position today or in the future, take the lead to reduce undiagnosed cardiovascular disease in your personnel. Whether you’re a fire chief, commissioner, or a council person, you have the ethical, moral, financial, and operational responsibility to provide medical clearance exams for your firefighters. Also, establish a continuous health and wellness program. Make firefighter health as much a priority as your operational training. You know what? All the ICS training in the world is not going to save a firefighter with undiagnosed heart disease.  

If you’re not in a leadership position, you still have a responsibility to your family and yourself to know and address your risk factors. Get a baseline cardiovascular exam and make any lifestyle changes your doctor recommends. If your state has a  first responder cardiovascular program, such as the Captain Buscio Program in New Jersey, which is brilliant, take advantage of it.

Concerted efforts to improve PPE, tactics, seatbelt usage, and our understanding of fire behavior have significantly reduced firefighter line of duty deaths, at least until COVID hit. But the percentage of non-COVID cardiac-related deaths remains at 50%. There is no good reason for this number to be stuck at 50%! You and each of you can do something about it. 

This is low-hanging fruit, my friends. Just as wearing your seatbelt will reduce your chance of getting killed in a collision, maintaining your cardiovascular health will reduce your chance of sudden cardiac death. So take steps today to reduce your risk.  

And that is Today’s Tip from Lexipol. Gordon Graham, signing off. 

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