By the National Volunteer Fire Council
First responders are used to being there when others need them. Through fires, medical emergencies, natural disasters, and other incidents, firefighters and EMTs are the ones community members count on to protect them in any kind of emergency. Yet these same first responders often neglect to take care of their own health and safety. Year after year, heart attack is the leading cause of line-of-duty death, and countless first responders struggle with medical issues such as hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease.
Fire and emergency medical services personnel are not alone in their risk of heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 600,000 people die of heart disease every year, making heart disease the leading cause of death for both men and women. What makes the fire service unique is the intense pressures and high intensity nature of the job. A 2007 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that emergency firefighting duties were associated with a risk of death from coronary heart disease that was markedly higher than the risk associated with nonemergency duties. Fire suppression had the highest risk.
This is probably not surprising to most first responders. What is surprising is that there are still so many firefighters and EMS personnel who are not taking proactive measures to reduce their risks of heart attack and heart disease. First responders must be ready at a moment’s notice to battle very demanding emergencies. Emergency response personnel must be physically and mentally prepared for the job at hand.
February is American Heart Month, an annual event that is designed to renew the nation’s commitment to fighting heart disease and increase public awareness of how to prevent this deadly illness. While heart health should always be a priority, American Heart Month creates an opportunity to reaffirm and re-energize our commitment to a leading healthy lifestyle.
While getting and staying healthy takes some work, help is available. For emergency services personnel, the NVFC Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program offers resources for individuals and departments to focus on their health. These include tools to start and expand a department health and wellness program, fitness demonstrations, healthy recipes, health assessment tools, success stories, training webinars, the Health and Wellness Advocate Workshop, smoking cessation resources, and more. In addition, the interactive Fired Up for Fitness Challenge motivates first responders to get active by providing incentive rewards for meeting fitness goals. Find all of these tools and more at www.healthy-firefighter.org.
There are many simple steps you can take to begin on the path to heart health. These include:
- Aim for a healthy weight. It is important for a long, vigorous life. Excess weight and obesity cause many preventable deaths.
- Get moving. Make a commitment to be more physically active. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most, preferably all, days of the week.
- Eat for heart-health. Choose a diet that is low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. Be sure to include whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
- Know your numbers. Ask your doctor to check your blood pressure, cholesterol (total, HDL, LDL, triglycerides), and blood glucose. Work with your doctor to improve any numbers that are not normal.
- If you smoke, try to quit. People who smoke are up to six times more likely to suffer a heart attack than non-smokers.
Be proactive in your health and work to prevent avoidable illness and tragedy. With so many people who depend on you – your family, your department, and your community – you cannot afford to put off taking care of yourself. Find more steps, tips, and resources for becoming heart healthy on the Heart-Healthy Firefighter web site at www.healthy-firefighter.org.