Annual “Safety Stand Down” addresses cardiac risk amongst firefighters

Scottsdale Deputy Chief tells story of anticipated heart attack

Firefighters have a 300 percent increased risk for cardiac disease over the regular population, according to a landmark FEMA study.  This significant danger to firefighter lives has brought special consideration during the annual Safety Stand Down week observed by fire departments across the country, June 16-22, 2019.

“Cardiac disease is one of the most serious threats facing firefighters,” said Scottsdale Assistant Fire Chief Eric Valliere, who is also one of the Valley Safety Officer Committee Chairs. “Locally, we are taking a look at this issue, in addition to the national focus of cancer in the fire service and crew-based accountability, in this year’s Safety Stand Down effort.”

Kepra Jack, RN, is co-founder and COO of HeartFit for Duty, LLC.  The organization works specifically with public safety and the military on wellness issues.  She said that unlike the risk factors of the general population (gender, age, family history, obesity, tobacco use, etc.), a firefighter’s cardiac risks are tied to specific job exposures:

  • Fire smoke (smoke particulates, CO, Hydrogen Cyanide) 
  • Heat Stress
    • Elevated Body temperatures and noise exposure, which is linked with Hypertension
    • Dehydration, which thickens blood increasing risk of heart attacks/stroke (90% of firefighters already dehydrated)
  • Shift work, where sleep deprivation and quick response to incidents causes a spike in heart rates.

“In this career, being physically fit does not equate to cardiac fitness,” Valliere said.  “Our members must be open to early identification and mitigation.”

One of the leading indicators is a “calcium score,” which is calculated based on the amount of plaque observed in a CT scan.  Those with a high score have a significantly higher risk of a cardiac incident.  

Scottsdale Deputy Chief Kerry Swick, 56, is active and works out almost daily.  He was diagnosed in February 2018 with a high calcium score of 225. “They told me it was not a matter of if, but when,” he said.

That “when” occurred just a month later.  “I could tell that when I put my heart under load (i.e., exertion), I didn’t feel right.”  Although he was checked out by emergency crews, it wasn’t clear what he was experiencing. “I went home and to bed planning to see the doctor in the morning.” 

The next day he went directly to the HeartFit clinic. He was told in no uncertain terms that he was suffering from a heart attack and he must immediately go to the hospital.

“I had a stent put in that afternoon and was back at work Monday morning,” he said.
Swick is now the Professional Services Chief. His division includes the fire department’s wellness program.  

“The experience has opened my eyes to the risks we face in the fire department that have nothing to do with the stereotype of running into a burning building,” Swick said. “We have to do what we can to control where we can, monitor when there is an issue, and quickly respond if something goes wrong.  Quality and quantity of life is at risk.”

Jack is confident that the statistics can be improved. “Cardiovascular disease and cancer both have risks that can be mitigated with controlling modifiable factors,” she said. “These are the things that we can control in our environment.”

Valliere agreed. “Bottomline, these issues in firefighters can be reduced,” he said. “The Safety Stand Down effort is our opportunity to increase awareness and begin recognizing where changes can be made to extend the survivability of our firefighters.”

Safety Stand Down week is the unification of the International Association of Fire Chief’s Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival section with the National Volunteer Fire Council’s “National Firefighter Health Week.“ The goal of both organizations is to reduce the number of preventable injuries and deaths in the fire and emergency services. Safety Stand Down focuses on the critical importance of responders taking care of themselves both on and off the emergency incident scene. The week is designed to increase awareness and action so that safety and health become a priority in all fire and emergency service departments.

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