By now, we’ve all read or heard about the preliminary results from the FEMA-sponsored study
that found one third of firefighters had heart disease that was unrelated to traditional risk factors, such as high cholesterol, and they have a 300% increased risk of dying from heart disease than other segments of the general population. While these results are astonishing, they also provide vital information to the first responder community that could potentially change fire service culture nationwide.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Gwinnett Fire & Emergency Services (GFES) Assistant Chief of Operations Bill Myers about how his department became the focus of the study and what, if anything, has changed since the results were released. (By now, we also know it was GFES personnel over the age of 40 who agreed to participate in the study because of the high number of life-altering heart-related problems suffered by its employees.) “It wasn’t just one person in our department,” says Chief Myers. “We had several firefighters who retired and died of heart attacks. We had one firefighter fatality that was the result of a heart attack. A couple of guys had response-ending heart disease or heart attacks—they were 40 years old. We also had a few people who were diagnosed with heart disease and had to be removed from the field.”
It’s widely known that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of firefighters. In an effort to fight this statistic and put a stop to the heart-related problems and tragedies within their department, GFES Chief Steve Rolader increased his focus on the department’s wellness program, and started talking about it to local news stations, which caught the attention of H. Robert Superko, MD, who became the principal investigator in the landmark FEMA-sponsored study.
The results of the study have had a major impact on GFES. “I relate the results of the study to situational awareness,” says Chief Myers. “Firefighters understand the concepts of preplanning, command and control and situational awareness. The results of this study allow firefighters to be in command and control of their own health. It allows them to preplan their own health. The third greatest killer of firefighters is a lack of situational awareness on the fireground. A lack of personal situational awareness will also lead to fatality.”
Chief Myers ensured me that this newfound situational awareness is being taken very seriously; the department has made some dramatic lifestyle changes. “We’ve seen better cooking, better eating, a lot more exercise, and we’ve changed our physical fitness program to include the CrossFit Program
, which incorporates more job-related exercises,” Chief Myers explains. “We’ve also changed our radio in-coding system from a loud type of bang to a sound that starts off soft and gets louder gradually, so you’re not startled awake. People love it, and it hasn’t affected our response times at all.”
Chief Myers has a personal stake in the overall health and wellness of his department, as he has a family history of heart disease, like many of us do, and he was found, through the study’s genetic testing, to carry the “heart attack” gene. Fortunately, Chief Myers has always been a watchdog for his own health. “I’ve always exercised, and going through the study tests confirmed for me that I was doing the right things. One of the tests they gave us was a CT scan to locate calcium in the arteries. Fortunately, I had none, but unfortunately, people younger than me did.”
Going forward, Dr. Superko and other researchers at St. Joseph’s Hospital are going to focus on firefighter diet and nutrition as one way to decrease chances of heart attack and/or heart disease among firefighters. “Part of the original study was a diet study in which GFES employees were asked to write down everything they ate for 3 days,” Chief Myers says. “I looked at my calorie intake, and what I was getting my calories from isn’t what I should have been getting my calories from.”
I don’t think it’s going to be a quick and painless process to make sweeping changes to a profession that prides itself on upholding tradition, but GFES has definitely started out on the right foot. “This is the only way we’re going to reduce firefighter fatalities across the country as it relates to heart disease,” says Chief Myers.
Cindy Devone-Pacheco is senior editor of FireRescue