By Robert Owens
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), heart disease is the leading killer among all men and women in the United States. Some 385,000 Americans die annually from heart disease, with another 715,000 Americans reporting at least one heart attack each year (CDC, 2013). Although these statistics are alarming, there are inherent risks with being a firefighter that increase the potential for cardiac arrest.
According to Dr. Patrick Moriarty, Director of the Atherosclerosis and LDL—Apheresis Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center, a study of 77 firefighters with an average age of 39 years old revealed that most had the plaque buildup of a 52-year-old (Colwell, 2009). This was attributed to stress, sleep deprivation, and high-calorie meals.
Dr. Gregg C. Fonarow, a professor of medicine and associate chief of the cardiology division at the University of California—Los Angeles led a similar study of firefighters and found that particulates in fire smoke leads to inflammation of arteries, increasing the chance for heart disease or stroke (Colwell, 2009). The study also revealed that, despite an average firefighter age that would be considered “young,” the subjects’ arteries resembled those of people some 13 years older.
Dr. Jim Brown from Indiana University—Bloomington studied Indianapolis, Indiana, firefighters for six months, monitoring their heart rates. Findings included firefighters operating at 100 percent capacity of their hearts for hours, and high heart rates even during sleep not allowing their bodies to reach rapid eye movement (REM) and recover (Brown & Stickford, 2007).
As of this writing, the United States Fire Administration has recorded 16 line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) during 2014, with all but five being heart or cerebrovascular related. What does it all mean?
Simply, firefighters have heart attacks. This concept should be nothing new. The data have been there for years. These events occur at the station, after a shift, and even on the fireground. Although programs such as “Saving Our Own” or “Firefighter Rescue” training focus on calling a Mayday or locating and removing downed firefighters, there is no mention of caring for a firefighter after rescue from the fire environment or when they collapse on scene or at the station.
Just as firefighters face extraordinary factors that influence their potential to experience a heart attack or stroke, dealing with a firefighter in cardiac arrest is not a straightforward event; it takes different skill sets, procedures, resources, and composure to result in good outcomes.
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