Study finds clues behind early firefighter deaths

By FireRescue1 Staff

ATLANTA — Job duties and environment are the leading factors of early death among firefighters, according to researchers.

Preliminary findings released Tuesday from the FEMA-sponsored study showed one-third of the firefighters tested had heart disease that is unrelated to traditional risk factors like high cholesterol.

It has been billed as the world's first study of first responders at risk of suffering sudden death or other significant cardiac events.

"Those results are astounding and point at job duties and environment as the primary determinants for early death in our country's first responders," said Dr. H Robert Superko, a leading heart disease expert and principal investigator in the study.

Stress and psychological pressures related to the job, as well as diet, exercise issues and inherent personality, interacting with a genetic predisposition to heart disease likely impact the risk of heart attack in the firefighters studied, Dr. Superko said.

The results are from sophisticated blood and imaging tests on 300 firefighters aged 40 and over in Gwinnett County, Georgia.

They were chosen for the study after Gwinnett Fire Chief Steve Rolader highlighted the sudden death of an apparently healthy firefighter from cardiac arrest while fighting a house fire.

A comprehensive genetic screen of more than one million genes, advanced blood phenotype, imaging analysis, diet and exercise review was administered to study volunteers during the year-long study.

The investigative team expects to release complete statistical and comprehensive genetics results later this year and to submit the findings for presentation consideration at the annual American Heart Association meeting.

In response to the results, the Gwinnett Fire Department has started exercise programs within local firehouses and reimburses fitness club membership costs. The department has also implemented diet and nutrition education programs and has installed softer firehouse alarms to reduce stress on firefighters.

Saint Joseph's Hospital, where the tests were conducted, and Dr. Superko's team have since begun a two month screening program for all Atlanta first responders regardless of age to provide diagnostic tests at more affordable prices.

Chief Rolader said he hopes the study will spur other departments to implement health programs for members.

"There are tremendous costs associated with early deaths of our first responders in every community as we lose men and women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who are our first line of defense but who don't live to perform their jobs for very long," he said "With the results of this study, we can implement programs across the country that will save lives."

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