Cardiovascular Disease: Deadlier than Fire

The aroma of fresh bacon sizzling in the skillet flowed throughout the room where stacks of pancakes drizzled in maple syrup lined the table, garnished with sides of fried eggs and sausage. This was a common breakfast spread seen in firehouses across the nation, including the Red Oak Fire Department, until a disheartening study conducted by the United States Fire Administration about the health, fitness and fatalities of fire protection personnel was released.

According to the study, the leading cause of death, at an overwhelming 44 percent, was heart attacks and cardiovascular disease. It seems cardiovascular disease is deadlier than fire. In distant second was trauma at 27 percent. After the findings were released, the Texas Commission on Fire Protection created the Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative.

In hopes of causing a change amongst themselves and the community, the Red Oak Fire Department joined the wellness movement about 10 years ago. In the past six years, it has taken a more serious role among the crews. Fire Chief Eric Thompson appointed Lieutenant Casey Greene as their wellness coordinator. Casey, along with fellow firefighters Holly Cook and Josh Nichols, attended the 40-hour Cooper Clinic Fire Service Fitness Specialist Course in Dallas in order to come back and train the department. “We implemented the Cooper program in 2007 and looking at the numbers this year, our guys have cut two to four minutes off of their mile-and-a-half,” Casey said. “It took a couple of years to get it moving, but our numbers are going down, which means our cardiovascular health is getting stronger and that is a vast improvement.”

From Left to right: Gabriel Guerrero, Jason Harris, Casey Greene, Scott Oakes and Josh Nichols.

After attending the course, guidelines were established to test the firefighters’ physical endurance and on-the-job abilities yearly. Complete physicals also became a requirement. The Cooper Clinic created a physical endurance assessment where participants are required to run, do pushups and sit-ups, and other obstacles within time constraints. During the second assessment of the year, the Physical Agility Test simulates on-the-job situations. Participants must wear their required uniform and gear, which weighs around 65 pounds, and perform tasks like victim dragging and hose hoisting and stacking. “Think about lying in bed at 2:00 a.m. and the alarms go off. You’re going 200 miles an hour giving it everything you’ve got,” Casey said. “The first 15 minutes on a fire ground is equivalent to the average workers’ 40-hour week.”

To prepare for these tests their first task was to change the eating habits in and out of the station. Grilled foods replaced the original fried, fatty ones. Eating out became more of the occasional splurge than the norm. The department is young, the average age being 30, and both Eric and Casey hope that through this program lifestyle changes develop. So far, nutrition has been the hardest part of the program to adopt. “The fire service is known for its traditions, and one of those is we like to cook and eat,” Eric said. “It takes five to seven years to establish a tradition and culture, and that is what we’re doing here, especially with the younger guys. Hopefully, we can prevent some unnecessary medical problems in their future.”

The next step in their program was to focus on endurance, strength and flexibility by creating a mandatory workout session. Each shift is required to participate in a one-hour workout as long as it does not interfere with a call. Since there is not a gym on the premises, the department works out at Anytime Fitness. They have 24-hour access and the department covers the cost.

“It’s important for our community to know exactly what we’re doing at the gym for an hour or two a day,” Eric said. “We are trying to provide the best customer service we can by taking care of ourselves. It’s also just as important for us to be interacting with our community in these types of situations to let them know we aren’t just hiding out at the station.”

The department has seen a significant increase in its effectiveness and strength. Cardiovascular disease is down in the department as well as other injuries because of the wellness program. “We’ve had one or two instances where we were able to catch some stuff in our guys, and it has saved us and them a lot,” Eric said. “When someone is out because of an illness or injury, it’s really hard on the team. We don’t have the manpower to afford several guys out at once. By doing these preventative check-ups, staying physically fit and focusing on nutrition, we’ve saved money and are of better service to our community.”

In the future, they would like to extend this program citywide for other departments who face physically challenging duties. “Our administration lets us take our engines out of service, sign them out as unavailable for that one hour of exercise,” Casey said. “We’ve been very fortunate because not many administrations will do that for their workers. By caring for and maintaining ourselves, we are ultimately serving our community.”

Written by Sydni Thomas.