Copyright 2006 North Jersey Media Group Inc.,
All Rights Reserved
By RICHARD COWEN
The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)
For firefighters, it's a fact of life — and death.
Every year in the United States, about 100 firefighters die in the line of duty, but most aren't killed by smoke, flames or collapsing buildings.
They die from heart attacks.
In New Jersey, 80 percent of firefighter deaths since 2004 have been linked to heart attacks.
Dashing into a burning building and up six flights of stairs lugging 60 pounds of gear is a severe test for even a young firefighter in top condition. But for an older firefighter who is out of shape and hasn't seen a doctor in years, that dash up the stairs could be the ticket to an early death.
Despite the danger, recent studies have shown that fire departments in New Jersey do little to promote health and fitness among members. Few require annual physicals — firefighters cite prohibitive costs and fears that poor results could thwart careers — or offer even simple fitness equipment like treadmills and weights.
"For a firefighter, there is enormous stress on the heart," said Maggie Wilson, health and safety coordinator for the National Volunteer Fire Council, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group. "It's 2:30 in the morning and the firefighter is fast asleep when the alarm goes off. He goes from being in a deep sleep to rushing off to fight a fire. That requires a tremendous surge of adrenaline. If a firefighter's blood pressure is 200 over 120 and he doesn't know it, he's in deep trouble."
Convinced that some heart attack deaths are preventable, a group of health and safety advocates has begun a campaign to target the unhealthy lifestyle at many firehouses, where long hours between calls are filled by eating and watching television. They hope to reduce line-duty deaths by 25 percent over five years, in part by creating uniform medical and fitness standards for all U.S. firefighters.
"Firefighters don't like the term 'culture change.' They think it's an assault on tradition," said Bill Manning, a spokesman for the National Fallen Firefighters Association, which has put together an initiative named Everyone Goes Home. "But look at the facts. Half of the firefighter deaths each year are due to heart attack, and another 25 percent are guys who die in car accidents on the way to the fire. Firefighters are indeed heroes, but these are not hero deaths."
Age plays a role
Nationally, 232 firefighters have died in the line of duty since 2004, 123 of them from heart attacks, according to a mortality study by the U.S. Fire Administration. In New Jersey over that same period, 10 firefighters died, eight from heart attacks. Three were from North Jersey: Glenn Galderisi, 52, of Wayne, Angelo Petta, 46, of Garfield, and William Pierce, 54, of Ogdensburg.
A closer look highlights troubling trends within New Jersey's fire service: Seven of the eight heart attack victims were volunteers, and all were over 40.
More than half of the state's 40,000 firefighters, both career and volunteer, are 41 or older, an age at which men become increasingly vulnerable to heart attacks. Furthermore, volunteer departments often struggle to recruit new members, which forces older members to take more active — and more dangerous — roles in fighting fires.
Mark Sulcov, a volunteer with the Fort Lee Fire Department since 1975, still feels the rush when the alarm rings. But he admits it's probably time to let the younger guys do the more dangerous tasks.
"I know at 54 that I can't do all the things that I used to," he said. "It's probably better if I'm driving the truck instead of going inside and fighting a fire. But depending on manpower, that's not always possible. You do what you have to do to get the job done."
Firefighters who wear a breathing apparatus take an annual test to ensure their hearts and lungs are strong enough to use that gear. Those who work around hazardous materials have toxins in their blood measured every year.
But beyond those specialized tests, firefighters in New Jersey aren't required to undergo thorough medical screenings — even though the federal government recommends them.
'It's up to the guys'
Guidelines adopted by the U.S. Fire Administration recommend that all firefighters — volunteer and career — undergo annual physicals. The guidelines also urge that every fire department have a program to promote physical fitness and a healthy diet.
The federal government allows the states to decide whether to adopt these guidelines. Some states offer far stricter standards than New Jersey, which with its strong tradition of home rule leaves it up to individual fire departments. California requires paid firefighters to undergo annual medical screenings. Minnesota makes screenings mandatory for all firefighters — volunteer as well as paid. Phoenix requires firefighters to remain fit and allows them to exercise during the work day. Dallas is planning an annual fitness test; firefighters are now allowed to work out on the job, but it's not mandatory.
Closer to home, New York City requires annual physicals for its firefighters and encourages them to work out on the job.
But New Jersey fire departments have resisted mandatory physicals. And even where departments do encourage fitness — firehouses in Ridgewood and Englewood have weight rooms, for instance — exercise programs are not mandatory.
"It's up to the guys to take care of themselves," said Paul Kearns, a career firefighter with the Teaneck Fire Department and health and safety officer with the New Jersey Firemen's Mutual Benevolent Association. "First, there's the issue of the cost of the physicals to the towns. And then there's the issue that the guys should be taking care of themselves."
Others say career firefighters balk at mandatory physicals for fear a failing grade could cost them a promotion — even their job.
Volunteer companies also are reluctant to enforce fitness standards, but for different reasons.
"We have a tough enough time getting people to volunteer," said Ed Pomponio, the Little Falls chief. "I'll bet you'd deplete half of the fire department if members had to take physicals."
Forty years ago, when Little Falls had a strong industrial base, the volunteer fire department had no problem recruiting local factory workers, many of whom lived in town. All that has changed.
One recent weekday, four men watched TV in the lounge at Engine Company No. 2 in Little Falls. One was Bob Conti, 71, the assistant fire chief and a member of the department since 1952.
"When I came on, everyone on the fire department worked in the immediate area," he said. "But that began to change in the 1970s. Now it's harder and harder to get guys to join. The way things are going, we're headed toward some kind of paid, regional department. I can't see it going any other way."
Suddenly the alarm rang, a report of smoke in the public library two blocks away. All four firefighters jumped aboard the truck, including Conti. The alarm turned out to be false, but the adrenaline was real.
'He was my soul mate'
It's been more than two years since Glenn Galderisi jumped onto a Wayne Fire Department truck to respond to a pair of false alarms. He never came home.
Now, Alyson Galderisi's living room is a shrine to her fallen husband, who collapsed shortly after he returned to the firehouse. Glenn's helmet sits proudly atop the mantel. Nearby are photos of Glenn astride the Pompton Fire Department rig, smiling.
Some days, she's so angry he's gone that she turns the photos to face the wall. "I have no fear of death now, because I feel the best part of my life has been lived," she said. "He was my soul mate."
At 52, Glenn was a big, strapping guy. A bit overweight, she said, but there was never any sign something might be wrong. He'd been a volunteer firefighter for more than 30 years, answering hundreds of calls.
Two months before Glenn Galderisi died, President Bush signed the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act, which offers death benefits for volunteer firefighters killed by strokes or heart attacks in the line of duty. She's applied for a $267,000 death benefit.
When an agent from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health visited to help her fill out the forms, he asked what might have prevented her husband's death.
"I told him it might have helped if Glenn had been given a physical," she said. "I don't know if it would have saved him, but the doctor might have spotted something. I'll never know."
Taxpayers suffer, too
When a firefighter drops dead of a heart attack in the line of duty, everyone pays. The widow of a firefighter who dies at age 45 and leaves two kids can expect to collect almost $2 million in benefits via worker's compensation and the federal programs.
"It is an enormous expense, and it's all paid for by the taxpayers," said David Grubb, the executive director of the Bergen County Joint Insurance Fund, the municipal insurance pool that covers the county's fire departments. "There is a real need for change."
Grubb said requiring young firefighters to undergo annual physicals "wouldn't make sense." But JIF officials are mulling changes, among them whether older firefighters should be subject to more frequent medical evaluations.
"Take a guy who is in his 20s, who doesn't smoke, who doesn't have hypertension — young guys don't need to be checked out every year," Grubb said. "But a guy in his mid-40s who is overweight and has hypertension, that's the guy you want to keep your eye on."
Grubb said the state has tried in previous years to force firefighters to take more physicals, "but has already run into a buzz saw."
"The opposition comes from the firefighters themselves," he said. "They love what they do. Nobody wants to be told that they can't do the job anymore."
There are signs of change. When Closter firefighters meet monthly, an EMS worker is on hand to give firefighters blood pressure screenings. Park Ridge, a small volunteer outfit, has required its 40 members to take annual physicals for years.
"We figured it was just something that made sense to do," said Park Ridge Fire Chief Tom DeRienzo. "We've had a couple guys discover conditions they didn't know they had, like diabetes. But as far as it being a disincentive to join, I'd say it's been the opposite. Guys see having a free physical as a benefit."
Ridgewood has a health and safety officer on board to encourage healthy habits and coordinate fitness programs.
"I remember the days when there used to be competitive eating contests," recalled Ridgewood Capt. Mark Bombace, 45. "Guys would weigh themselves after a meal. Some guys would put on three or four pounds in one meal."
Bombace also recalls a visit to San Diego three years ago, when a fire engine roared down the street and stopped at a park. Off jumped a bunch of firefighters in sneakers and shorts, ready to jog.
"I'd never seen anything like that before," he said. "It seems the West Coast is ahead of the East Coast when it comes to fitness."