Firefighters – It’s time for a heart to heart!

I remember starting the fire service at barely 19 years old. My captain (a salty old guy around 35 ha-ha) asked me, “hey kid, what’s your ultimate goal in the fire service?” I immediately blurted “to be fire chief!” Thinking that was the answer he wanted to hear, he immediately snapped back and said “no you want to put in your 30 years and live a good, happy, healthy life after the fire service.” Under my breath, with a few expletive words, I muttered “yeah whatever old man… I’m just happy to be here starting my career.” Retirement was the furthest thing from my mind. How quickly time goes by. I’m now the old man, and as I look back I totally understand what that young smart captain meant.

You're a firefighter now, congratulations! Firefighting is a very strenuous job both mentally and physically. But wait a minute - there is another danger ahead and it’s a silent killer – heart attack!

You’re known for being that firefighter who is "first in and last out" during fires and incidents. You eat, breathe, sleep the fire service — a truly dedicated individual, all good for you and those you serve, right? Wrong again!

Fire service personnel have a higher risk of heart disease compared to non-firefighters. As a firefighter, you're at an even higher risk than the others not only because of the above, but also due to the stress and strain on your heart.

Cardiovascular disease is the cause of 45 percent of the line-of-duty deaths among firefighters. Throw in the added stress of being a chief, and you just increase your chances of heart disease.

"Hey, wait a minute, Chief Sam. I work out, eat right and maintain my stress levels. I got this, right?" Chances are, wrong again. Heart disease is a "silent killer," and just staying fit is not protection enough. Many fire service personnel I know lead healthy lifestyles; however, prior to diagnosis they had no clue they had heart disease — including myself.

February is Heart Awareness Month. Together, we can prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD) one step at a time. Together with your loved ones and others in your organization, make it a policy to:

  • Get a check-up with your doctor and repeat it yearly. Make sure your doctor knows you're a fire chief, and discuss the exposure you have and the risks such exposure brings. Be prepared with your family's history of heart problems. Ask whether you should have a stress test or other forms of monitoring. Remember: Physicians are often pressed for time and used to seeing sick individuals. If you're healthy, you may need to push a little and ask lots of questions to ensure you're getting thorough care.
  • Wear your PPE. Tests repeatedly show high levels of carcinogens in fire buildings long after knockdown. Follow your department's policies for atmospheric monitoring and stay on air until the all-clear is given, even during overhaul and other situations that appear harmless.
  • Practice decon. Following a fire, thoroughly clean your PPE and yourself. Decon should start on the fireground — using water to clean PPE and baby wipes to clean your skin — and continue in the station. Take a hot shower following any working fire, and thoroughly clean and inspect your PPE.
  • Monitor your blood pressure. High blood pressure often has no symptoms — that’s why it's also called a silent killer. Be sure to have it checked on a regular basis. We have the equipment on the rigs to do so, use it!
  • Get your cholesterol checked and eat a healthy diet. Cooking healthy meals and choosing nutritious snack options can help you avoid CVD and its complications.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. We have the time — exercise while on duty. Being overweight or obese can increase your risk for CVD. Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
  • Don't smoke or use tobacco. Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk for CVD. Though smoking is becoming more taboo in many places of the country, I've noticed an increase in firefighters who "chew." This is equally if not more harmful than cigarettes.
  • Limit alcohol use. Avoid drinking too much alcohol, which can increase your blood pressure.
  • Manage your diabetes. If you have diabetes, monitor your blood sugar levels closely. Take your medicine. If you're taking medication to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or another condition, follow the instructions carefully.

It is also important to remember heart disease is sometimes thought of as a man’s disease, almost as many women as men die each year of heart disease in the United States. Make sure you share this and discuss it with your wife.

Check out this CDC page for additional tips that can inspire you throughout February and all year long: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2007-133/

Sam DiGiovanna is a 35-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Dept and currently is the Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale.\. He is also VP of Fire Operations at www.Cordico.com