5 must-know cardiac warning signs

Cardiac events are the leading killer of firefighters; knowing how to spot the warning signs could a crew member's life — or your own

By Chief Gary Bowker (Ret)

Stress and over-exertion, which is the number one killer of firefighters, continues to take a deadly toll each year on unsuspecting firefighters in the form of cardiac events during or following emergency operations. This is especially true with hot summer temperatures now upon us.  

Most firefighters understand and appreciate the value of pre-planning to identify hazards within our communities and being situationally aware of their surroundings. They gather key pieces of critical information during the best conditions for use under the worst conditions.

This concept can be applied to our own cardiac health to identify and lower the risks associated with cardiac events.

Here are five warning signs that to be aware of. Pre-plan what to do if either you or a member of your crew experiences one or more these symptoms.

  1. Become light headed or dizzy with mild or moderate exertion.
  2. Quickly become exhausted with mild or moderate exertion.
  3. Have shortness of breath.
  4. Feel sick or just not feeling or looking right.
  5. Have any chest, shoulder, back, left arm pain or numbness.

Mum is not the word
Many firefighters won't say anything if they are not feeling well, so it is imperative that crew members know their own body, and keep a watchful eye on one another. If the firefighter just doesn't look right, talk to him or her, and if they don't feel well they should be immediately check by qualified medical staff.

Too many firefighters either don't look well or comment that they don't feel well and ignore these symptoms only to die hours later. Keeping well hydrated and going to rehab while working in the summer heat is not enough.

All firefighters should know whether they have a family history of cardiac illness or disease. This is crucial. If you have a family history of heart disease or hypertension your risk factors are significantly increased.

Other long-term preventive measures to improve your overall cardiac health should include: watching your diet and reducing fat intake, lose those extra pounds, exercise regularly, stop smoking and wear your SCBA during overhaul.

Recent studies strongly indicate that carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide gases are present at most all fires in quantities greater than IDLH levels both inside and outside of the structure. These typical fire gases are known to hasten cardiac events. Protocols dealing with this should be codified in your department standard operating procedures.

If you love your crew, watch out for them.

About the author

Gary Bowker is a retired fire chief with the U.S. Air Force, and has served as fire chief with the Sumner County, Kansas Rural Fire District #10. Chief Bowker retired as fire marshal with the City of Winfield, Kansas and has over 38 years of fire service experience. He has taught numerous courses with the National Fire Academy, U.S. Department of Defense, and is an Associate Instructor with the University of Kansas Fire & Rescue Training Institute. He serves as a Kansas advocate with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation's Everyone Goes Home® program and speaks frequently and has written numerous articles on firefighter life safety and health issues. He is nationally certified as a Fire Officer II, Instructor II, Inspector II, Certified Fire & Explosion Investigator (CFEI), and he holds a B.Sc. degree in Fire Science Administration. Chief Bowker can be reached at: glbowker@hotmail.com


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