Mike Frantz, former Rice Lake fire chief, was sent home after responding to a call at 1 a.m. for a chimney fire because he wasn’t needed. Later that day, Mike died of a heart attack at age 42.
Shane Clifton, a former St. Paul firefighter and paramedic, died of a massive heart attack at age 38 while on duty – help was right there, but it wasn’t enough.
Cardiovascular disease is the number-one killer of firefighters nationwide and is by far the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths in the fire service. According to the International Association of Firefighters, more than 12 percent of all firefighters will develop heart disease at some point in their lives. Even young and healthy firefighters suffer from hardened arteries and impaired heart function after just three hours of prolonged firefighting, according to a 2010 study from the Illinois Fire Service Institute.
According to the HealthPartners Occupational Medicine MD team, firefighting strenuously challenges the individual in terms of both strength and cardio-respiratory status. Cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) testing needs to be performed on all firefighters as a baseline and as an ongoing metric to evaluate their level of fitness. This is the key metric that allows firefighters to engage safely in this challenging work. If the mission to reduce and minimize adverse cardiac events and firefighting is to be successfully accomplished there needs to be a commitment to endurance training and outcomes measured CRF.
Sleep also plays an important role in limiting cardiac issues. If firefighters do not get enough quality sleep, resting metabolic rates decrease and cause weight gain, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Maintaining work schedules – by providing proper staffing – that allow firefighters to get enough sleep can be paramount in preventing cardiac disease.
Traumatic stress can also increase a firefighter’s risk of heart attack, with one study from the University of California – San Francisco finding that even limited exposure to trauma can boost inflammation in the body, a key risk factor for heart disease. Pulmonary health also can negatively impact heart health. Breathing in toxic fumes and particles during overhaul, exhaust pollution from the apparatus bay and exposures during regular calls can adversely affect lung function, which is associated with an increased risk of heart failure.
Firefighters tend to embrace a “do whatever it takes” attitude when on the job – the goal is to ask firefighters to take the same approach to their health.