Heart attacks are the most common line of duty deaths for firefighters according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Your risk of developing heart disease is affected by both personal and workplace factors, so learn the strategies to prevent it.

Personal risk factors for heart disease include age, gender, and family history. Diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity also increase the risk. You can’t change history or stop advancing age, but you can get an annual physical and clearance to wear a self-contained breathing appartus (SCBA). If you have a heart condition, get medical clearance from a physician familiar with firefighting. Take care of yourself. Exercise, eat right, stay hydrated, and get adequate sleep. Participate in your department’s wellness/fitness program. Stop smoking.

Workplace factors like extreme physical exertion and exposure to contaminants, stress, and noise can be linked to the risk of heart attack. Fire suppression, alarm response, rescue, and training exercises require heavy physical exertion. Heavy turnout gear, respirator use, extreme fire heat, and exposure to the elements also increase physical demands on the body. Control exertion risks through medical surveillance, safe work practices, the use of safety equipment, and training.

Emergency calls lead to a sudden increase in heart rate, stress level, and physical exertion. The proper number of firefighters should be dispatched to an incident to rapidly control the scene and shorten the event. Relief crews called early in an incident can prevent overexertion of the initial responders. For large incidents, a recuperation vehicle can stabilize and refresh firefighters through a heated/cooled atmosphere, hot/cold fluids, and wet towels or warm blankets.

Inhaling smoke contaminants and particles can result in hypoxia, a shortage of oxygen in the body, which can lead to heart stress. To reduce exposure, wear the appropriate respirator throughout fire suppression and control. Because a respirator increases physical demands, evaluate the job tasks you do while wearing one. Change response procedures (post a fire watch instead of conduct an overhaul) or use relief personnel to conduct the work safely. Position command posts, staging, rest areas, and vehicles upwind of fire scenes. Avoid idling diesel engines near workers. Use ventilation and exhaust systems to remove contaminants from apparatus bays and living quarters.

Manage work stress through adequate shift spacing and incident debriefing. Know the physical effects of stress on your body. Noise exposure has been linked to hypertension and heart disease. Emergency response activities involving diesel engines, sirens, air horns, and roaring fire can create sound levels above 120 decibels. Wear the appropriate hearing protection when you can. Be familiar with the signs and symptoms of heat stress, especially the need for acclimation after a sudden change in temperature or time off the job.

Know the signs and symptoms of cardiac distress. Immediately report discomfort in the center of the chest, upper body, or feelings of pressure or pain, shortness of breath, a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness. Know that the symptoms of cardiac distress may include feelings of denial or doom. Get training in first aid and CPR. Keep an automatic external defibrillator (AED) on all fire apparatus.



Preventing Fire Fighter Fatalities Due to Heart Attacks and Other Sudden Cardiovascular Events

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The above evaluations and/or recommendations are for general guidance only and should not be relied upon for medical advice or legal compliance purposes. They are based solely on the information provided to us and relate only to those conditions specifically discussed. We do not make any warranty, expressed or implied, that your workplace is safe or healthful or that it complies with all laws, regulations or standards.

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