Firefighters focusing on preventing heart attacks
May 12, 2013 10:53 PM | 2184 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Fort Wayne firefighters Jason Green, left, and Scott Sorgen work out at the station in Fort Wayne. Firefighters have a higher risk of death from cardiac issues so work-out equipment is being provided to firefighters at the city's 18 fire stations. <br> The Associated Press
Fort Wayne firefighters Jason Green, left, and Scott Sorgen work out at the station in Fort Wayne. Firefighters have a higher risk of death from cardiac issues so work-out equipment is being provided to firefighters at the city's 18 fire stations.
The Associated Press
Fort Wayne firefighter David Kruse works out.
Fort Wayne firefighter David Kruse works out.
By Julie Crothers

The Journal Gazette

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — The alarm sounds, and the earsplitting tones echo through the firehouse.

In a dash, men and women donning heavy outfits and helmets jump aboard fire trucks. Less than 90 seconds later, they are out the door and down the street, headed to a vehicle crash, fire or other medical emergency.

In a matter of seconds, firefighters go from sitting at a table to jumping aboard a truck — from a body at rest to a heart instantly racing.

With fire runs happening multiple times a day, there’s no doubt that stress takes its toll, often in the form of a heart attack, a local physician said.

Heart attacks are a leading cause of death among firefighters in the United States, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

“We see line-of-duty deaths due to heart attacks all the time. They happen during fires, after fires, or at night after a long day,” city firefighter Mark Litwinko told The Journal Gazette. “No other line of work has so many cardiac deaths.”

The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that nationwide about 100 firefighters die each year while on duty, and nearly half of those deaths are attributed to heart attacks or other cardiac-related issues. Statewide, an average of 2½ firefighters die each year, according to fire administration data.

When firefighters arrive at a scene, they work at full strength, take a short break and then return to full power, Litwinko explained.

“When our heart rate and blood pressure is going up and down quickly, up and down many times, it weakens the body,” he said.

Environmental causes, such as smoke, heat, humidity and the weight of firefighters’ gear — which can tack on an additional 60 pounds — can also lead to health problems.

“And if you have underlying issues and add that kind of stress to your heart, and throughout the course of your career you do that over and over again, it’s going to have an impact,” Litwinko said.

Last year, there were 83 on-duty firefighter fatalities, 34 of which are known to have been caused by heart attacks, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

The remaining 49 deaths were caused by vehicle accidents, wild-land fires, shooting deaths, buildings collapsing, falls, firefighters being caught or trapped at the scene of a fire, or other causes.

This year, 24 firefighters have been killed in the U.S., and three of those deaths have been attributed to heart attacks.

Last year, two Hoosier firefighters were killed in the line of duty, both from vehicle accidents that occurred when the men were driving a firefighter apparatus that suddenly left the road, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

The first was an Evansville volunteer firefighter who died Feb. 22.

The second was Mark Haudenschild II of Allen County’s Washington Township Volunteer Fire Department, who died Nov. 11 after losing control of his tanker truck, rolling several times and hitting three utility poles on Hillegas Road. Haudenschild, 26, had served on the department for five years.

In 2011, four Hoosier firefighters were killed, three from heart attacks, according to data from the U.S. Fire Administration.

Among those deaths was 31-year-old Travis Lee Miller of Waterloo, who suffered a heart attack early in the morning while at his home.

Miller, a volunteer for the Waterloo-Grant Township Fire Department, responded to a house fire on July 20, 2011, Fire Chief Kirby Hobbs said.

Miller went home that night, had dinner with his family and about 10:30 p.m. told his wife, Amy, that he was tired and was going to bed.

“And then he never woke up,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs said Miller’s on-duty death was the first his department had ever had to deal with.

“People reacted in a lot of ways; there was sadness to fear. I think it scared people and made them take a look at their health and whatever medical issues they have,” he said. “We had a few guys who hadn’t been on that long at all who really took it hard.”

Hobbs said there wasn’t anything too unusual about the fire, other than it was hot and humid.

Since Miller’s death, the department has taken steps to help firefighters get healthy - including frequent discussions about eating right and exercising, Hobbs said.

The department is also renovating an area of the fire station to be used as an exercise room, he said.

“I’m even trying myself to slim down and eat better,” Hobbs said.

Getting healthy isn’t easy, but for local firefighters, it’s a priority that can’t be ignored, Fort Wayne Fire Chief Amy Biggs said.

“We are very, very fortunate to have the commitment of our administration and union to promote these programs that work in the best interest of our department,” Biggs said. “I really feel like we have a comprehensive program that benefits our firefighters.”

In 1991, the Fort Wayne Fire Department began a mandatory annual medical physical - the first step in what the department’s health and wellness program has become today, city firefighter Litwinko said.

Nearly 10 years later, in 2000, a committee of firefighters was formed to adopt and construct a wellness and fitness program. Three years later, the first Peer Fitness Trainers were certified through the American Council on Exercise.

Litwinko is one of the department’s 15 peer fitness trainers.

At least one trainer is available for each of the three shifts, or firefighters can make an appointment to create a specific program for diet and exercise assistance, Litwinko said.

Federal matching grants from the early 2000s totaling $179,000 were also used to add equipment to all 18 firehouses, spokeswoman Stacey Fleming said.

Once a year, all city firefighters must also participate in a work performance evaluation, similar to a fitness test, Litwinko said. The evaluations began in the fall of 2010.

Everyone - from chief Biggs to the newest firefighter on staff - must participate in both the examination and the evaluation, Litwinko added. Last year, about 390 firefighters completed the evaluation.

The evaluation is performed in full gear, designed to test and monitor firefighters in the same conditions they would face in the field.

Most of the evaluations revolve around two things - making sure firefighters are eating healthy and staying in shape, he said.

“We want to be at our best level at all times,” Litwinko said.

Dr. Mark O’Shaugnessy, a Fort Wayne cardiologist at Parkview Health, said diet and exercise are two keys to ensuring long and healthy lives for firefighters.

O’Shaugnessy has spent the past two years studying cardiac issues of people who work in public safety.

“Getting killed in the line of duty is one thing - it’s tragic and terrible,” O’Shaugnessy said. “But to die because of something else, something that could possibly be prevented - that’s a real crisis.”
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