Firefighters' Greatest Danger May Not Be Fires

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Fighting fires is difficult, dangerous work, but all of those sedentary hours spent in the firehouse might be just as dangerous as a 3-alarm blaze.

A study by the Applied Exercise Science Laboratory at Texas A&M University revealed that firemen are often at high risk for heart attacks primarily because they get little or no exercise while on duty.

Wade Womack, a faculty member in the laboratory at Texas A&M, charted 74 firefighters over a six-year period.

The study, "Cardiovascular Risk Markers in Firefighters: A Longitudinal Study," published in Cardiovascular Reviews and Reports, shows that often firemen are overweight and have less-than-ideal cholesterol levels, both of which could pose serious health problems.

"It all comes down to one main point: firemen need to exercise more," said Womack. "When firemen do fight fires, it is work that is both very strenuous and stressful, and very physically exerting. Put it all together and the chances of a heart attack are high."

Womack''s results are similar with data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), one of the country''s largest group of firemen.

In a study conducted by NFPA from 1977-95, about one-half of all line-of-duty deaths by firemen were not the result of fires, but heart attacks.

"In almost all of the cases, the heart attacks suffered by firemen are directly linked to exertional demands of the firefighters'' job," said Womack.

Nationally, figures show three-fourths of firefighters over the age of 45 who die in the line-of-duty, die from a heart attack.

And of the firefighters who have died from a heart attack while in the line-of-duty, two out of every five have documented heart conditions, Womack said.

Participants in Womack''s study ranged in age from early 20s to mid 60s, with the average age being 35.8 year old. They had above average body fat composition and slightly higher cholesterol readings based on optimum levels.

Especially disturbing, Womack noted, was that VO2 max, a measure of aerobic fitness, deteriorated significantly during the course of the study, from 41.8 to 35.6, suggesting a negative trend in the firemen''s overall physical condition.

The message is clear, Womack said: firemen need to work out more.

"For their own welfare, firemen need more exercise, but it could also come down to a matter of public safety," said Womack. "If a fireman is out of shape and is responding to a fire, could he not perform his job or put others at risk because of his fitness condition? It''s very possible."

According to Womack, many fire departments have fitness equipment and exercise rooms available to firemen. However, many fire departments do not require any physical activity and do not have fitness requirements that firefighters must maintain.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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