According to USFA, 59 firefighters died of heart attacks while on duty in 2014 (PDF). While research is continuing to tell us more about the effects of firefighting on the cardiovascular system, there’s a lot we know right now:
- Preventable lifestyle factors were found to be primary causes of sudden cardiac death (SCD) in young firefighters. Firefighters who suffered SCD were more likely to be obese and hypertensive, smoke and have a history of significant cardiovascular disease. Hypertension increased the risk of dying from SCD by 12 times.
- The magnitude of cardiovascular strain is mitigated or exacerbated by individual firefighter characteristics, such as health status and physical fitness. Cardiovascular strain is the result of multiple physiologic changes during firefighting activities, such as significant reductions in stroke volume and blood plasma volume, increased blood viscosity and possible increases in the risk of clot formation, increased arterial stiffness, increased arterial shear stress and altered electrolytes.
- After firefighting activities, significant increases in aortic diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and other cardiac measurements were noted while significant decreases in brachial and aortic pulse pressure were also found. The study authors concluded that the results suggested three hours of firefighting activities increase both arterial stiffness and vasodilation.
What does this all mean?
Firefighting is a physically demanding job with significant, complex effects. The unseen physical stressors on the human body also play a role in undermining the health and wellbeing of firefighters.
While we learn more about these risks, especially more about the physical costs of firefighting, understanding our own individual and departmental responsibilities are key. For the individual, it means taking a long, hard look at your own genetic risk factors and your lifestyle choices. For departments, it means investing in wellness programs such as the Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness/Fitness Initiative.
To help address the challenges associated with firefighter health and wellness, the IAFC and its Safety, Health and Survival Section are seeking fire departments and physicians conducting NFPA 1582-compliant physicals to help with the newest FSTAR effort
Featured Studies translate research studies into information and tools you can use. Available now:
- Establishing a Proactive Safety and Health Risk Management System in the Fire Service
- Obesity and Injury-Related Absenteeism in a Population-Based Firefighter Cohort
- Simulation of the Dynamics of a Wind-Driven Fire in a Ranch-Style House – Texas, NIST Technical Note
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Fire Service Resources
Under the direction of Denise L. Smith, PhD, Skidmore College’s First Responder Health and Safety Laboratory has published many studies in recent years on the cardiovascular health concerns of firefighters. Check out their fire service resources, including Effect of Heat Stress and Dehydration on Cardiovascular Function (PDF) and Sudden Cardiac Events in the Fire Service: Understanding the Cause and Mitigating the Risk (PDF).