Firefighters willingly risk their lives on the job, facing the possibility of injury and even death—but according to a recent survey, the average firefighter fears a heart attack more than a blazing building. Respondents also indicated that, in spite of their fear, they find maintaining heart-healthy habits—eating well and exercising regularly—more difficult than putting out a fire.
A Baseline for Awareness
This year, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) partnered with Cardioviva, a company that produces a probiotic to reduce cholesterol, to survey firefighters’ and EMTs’ awareness of their health and activity-related heart risks. “We partnered with [Cardioviva] because our goals are the same,” says Kimberly Quiros, director of communications for the NVFC. “Their founders have a connection to the fire service, and they support the fire service. When we decided to partner, they wanted to survey [firefighters] to see where we are in terms of awareness.”
The NVFC and Cardioviva teamed up to conduct a seven-day online survey of 478 active volunteer firefighters and EMTs in order to determine how public safety officials perceive heart-related health issues. “For years now, heart attacks have been the leading cause of death for firefighters, and it’s been a priority for us to spread awareness of that,” Quiros says.
The majority of firefighters who responded to the survey were concerned about dying from a heart attack. At the same time, most of them acknowledged that they could do a better job with overall diet and exercise to help prevent heart disease. Here’s a breakdown of the study’s findings:
Heart Disease: High Awareness & Concern
• 75% of the surveyed firefighters/EMTs are more concerned about dying of a heart attack than in the line of duty
• 93% are aware that that the leading cause of firefighter fatalities is heart attack
• 78% know at least one fellow firefighter who has suffered a heart attack
Challenge of Healthy Habits
• 85% say it’s harder to eat healthy foods and exercise than to fight a fire
• 84% feel it’s harder to exercise every day than to fight a fire
• 73% say it’s a challenge to gain access to healthy foods while at the firehouse
• 62% say it’s a challenge to access exercise facilities while at the firehouse
Desire to Improve
• 92% recognize that they could do a better job with their overall diet and improve the foods and beverages they consume every day
• 88% feel they could do a better job with their daily exercise and improve their level of physical activity
Social Media Steps In
The survey led to a Facebook-based contest to select three Cardioviva Heart Health Champions. Firefighters were asked to share stories of how they’ve gotten healthy, or how they plan to. Chief Peggy Smith of the Coolin-Cavanaugh Bay Fire Department in Coolin, Idaho, was the grand prize winner; runners-up were Thomas Gulbransen, a first lieutenant with Company 1 in Setauket, N.Y. and William Moorhead, a lieutenant with Duncan Chapel Fire Department in Travelers Rest, S.C.
“The winners will become our champions, and will receive funds to help them get healthy, including a fitness and nutrition makeover for their departments,” Quiros explains.
All of the attention on heart health proves firefighters are at least listening to and understanding the facts; the staff at the NVFC is gratified to see so many firefighters know that heart attacks are the #1 cause of death on the job. “The majority of respondents are aware of this issue, and we’re seeing them getting interested in being healthy,” Quiros says. “Now we need to make a connection between knowing and doing. How can we fix it?”
Although the survey respondents fear heart attacks, they indicated that they had room for improvement in their own heart health—particularly when on duty. “A lot of respondents found that it was difficult at the fire station to eat right and exercise,” Quiros notes. “Leadership has to make this a priority, and they have to lead by example, starting with training new recruits.”
But whether you’re new to the fire service or near retirement, any crew can alter the food they make and serve without making radical changes. Mike Ong, online fitness columnist for FireRescue and battalion chief for the Phoenix Fire Department, recommends that firefighters “find healthy alternative recipes to favorite foods. Take spaghetti or lasagna—try it with reduced-fat cheese, and turkey sausage instead of beef and pork.” This will go over much better than trying to serve salad to firefighters who have worked up an appetite. “Then you can start to introduce more healthy things, like more veggies, and try baking and grilling instead of frying,” Ong says. “We make baked sweet potato fries instead of French fries.”
Monte Egherman, fitness columnist for FireRescue and assistant fire chief for the Buckeye (Ariz.) Fire Department, points out that, “Many crews are making healthier choices by simply limiting ‘fun foods’ to certain days of the week; for example, they may only have full-tilt tacos when they work a Saturday. They fill in the rest of the time with heart-healthy choices, like grilled fish or chicken breasts and salads.”
As for getting access to workout facilities, Ong understands that exercising while on duty is not possible for everyone—but that shouldn’t stop them from a regular workout routine. “I dedicate [time on] my days off to work out,” he says. “If you know you’re not going to have a chance to exercise [on duty], then you have to find time for an uninterrupted workout—just keep that time consistent.”
Egherman adds, “The one thing I would suggest to firefighters is that they make a commitment to themselves and their families that they will not become a statistic of the fire service. They must commit to lifestyle changes and healthy habits ‘most of the time.’ It’s like the firehouse food thing: If you’re doing it right 90% of the time, then that other 10% won’t be as harmful.”
The fact is, firefighters are just like everyone else: they know what they should be doing to maintain optimal health; they just find it difficult to maintain those healthy habits. In the months ahead, the NVFC and many others will be looking for ways to help them overcome internal and external obstacles, change their habits and “take heart” in overcoming their personal fears of cardiac arrest.