Firefighter Killer: Heart Disease
Heart Disease Is Firefighters' Biggest On-Duty Death Risk
WebMD News Archive
Firefighters are like other people in one respect: Many of them have
underlying heart disease. And, like so many other Americans, many firefighters
have high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and other risk factors that
put them at risk of heart disease.
Battling fires and rescuing civilians involves sudden, extreme exertion and
exposure to toxic environments. These job risks make heart disease all the more
deadly for firefighters.
"Now we provide the strongest evidence to date that specific firefighter
duties -- fire suppression, alarm response, and physical training -- can
trigger events in firefighters with underlying disease," Kales says.
It's not that firefighters are having heart attacks right and left.
Firefighters suffer fewer than 50 on-duty heart deaths a year, notes Linda
Rosenstock, MD, MPH, dean of the University of California, Los Angeles School
of Public Health.
"We want to avoid every one of those deaths, in this work force
particularly, because they put themselves at risk helping us," Rosenstock
Saving Firefighters' Lives -- and Your Life
Understanding when firefighters are at greatest risk of heart death is the
first step toward saving these lifesavers' lives.
"There is a clustering of these events around times of peak physical
activity," Rosenstock notes. "They work in tough environments, they
wear heavy equipment, they are highly stressed, and they are exposed to
chemical toxins that may aggravate their cardiac risk. And all of these
exposures are occurring during the period when these fatal events
For all these reasons, underlying heart disease adds a huge risk to an
already risky job. That's why Rosenstock recommends that all fire departments
- require firefighters to undergo prehire and annual medical
- implement wellness and fitness programs to reduce heart disease risk
- require annual physical performance tests for all firefighters
Firefighters tend to be far fitter and healthier than civilians --
especially if they work full time at the job. But 70% of firefighters are
"The fitness requirements at entry and continuing through working life
are much higher on the career side than on the voluntary side," Rosenstock
says. "Very few paid firefighters continue after age 50. But the volunteer
work force is older -- and with age comes added risk."