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Emergencies take toll on health of fire and rescue workers

Study found that cardiovascular events account for 45 percent of the deaths of firefighters who die during emergencies each year

November 08, 2011|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU | arnoldp@herald-mail.com

Going from zero to 60 mph is a selling point for some vehicles, but having to do that at unexpected moments any time day or night can be bad for the health of fire and rescue workers.

"What is known as a fight or flight mechanism exists in everybody," said Matthew Tobia, chairman of the Safety, Health and Survival Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

"When you are thrown into an emergency situation, your body prepares you to fight or run like hell," Tobia said.

"For the majority of normal people, that doesn't happen very often, and that's a good thing. But every single time that a firefighter's alert system goes off, that happens. And the repetitiveness of that takes a toll on the body over time," he said.

So it would seem surprising that some Maryland counties don't require volunteer firefighters to take any physical exams after the initial one when they join.

 "Most areas in the metropolitan area of Baltimore and Washington give physicals ... but we've discovered that a lot of jurisdictions gave no physicals at all," said Ray Hodgson, facilities supervisor at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute in College Park, Md.

Cost discourages many jurisdictions, Hodgson said.

"We have to start somewhere, and this is fairly new for some departments," he said. "A lot of counties are taking strides to get to that point."

One such example is Frederick County. Until this past summer, that county only encouraged its approximately 600 front-line fire and rescue volunteers to get a physical, said Doug Orner, county volunteer fire and rescue coordinator.

But, beginning in July, after negotiations with Selective Insurance Co. to lower Frederick County's premium for workmen's compensation insurance for volunteers, the county began requiring physicals, Orner said.

Selective covers Washington County, too, and required similar changes here.

"The insurance company is allowing Frederick County to gradually move this way, by just requiring us to do the (age) 40-plus" volunteers this year, Orner said.

In the next two years, physicals will be required for those age 30 to 39 and then those 29 and younger, he said.

Nationwide, 32 percent of fire departments don't require physicals, one study found.  

Another study published in 2007 by The New England Journal of Medicine, showed that cardiovascular events — rather than burns or smoke inhalation — account for 45 percent of the deaths of firefighters who die during emergencies each year. On average, about 100 die each year nationwide.

The study also found that cardiovascular troubles caused 22 percent of deaths among on-duty police officers.

Physical exams can be vital, said Sara A. Jahnke, director of the Center for Fire, Rescue & EMS Health Research in Kansas City, Ks.

"With the physicals, you're going to identify problems early," said Jahnke, whose father was a fire chief in Overland Park, Kan.

"I think anytime there's a death, you think, could we have prevented it? If you could have prevented it by a screening, a health check, I think anyone would have said, yeah, if we could have prevented it, we would," Jahnke said.

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