Firefighters bravely run into fires when everyone else is running out. Yet the biggest danger they face isn’t fire or smoke the group says. It’s suffering from a sudden cardiac event while on duty.
Denise L. Smith, director of the First Responder Health and Safety Laboratory at Skidmore College, has been researching firefighter heart health for more than 20 years along with colleagues. Now a $1.3 million FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) will enable Smith and her team to put their findings into practice and help save firefighters’ lives.
The grant will fund a two-year project in which Smith’s team will work with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, leading cardiologists, fire chiefs and other experts to implement a pilot program to screen more than 2,000 firefighters for cardiac risks, then develop and distribute evidence-based enhanced screening guidelines and training/education materials to fire departments nationwide.
“Firefighters put their lives on the line to serve the communities they protect,” said Smith, a Tisch Family Distinguished Professor. “This project will help ensure that they are armed with the scientific information and medical screenings they need to protect themselves.”
In a large AFG-funded study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association on Sept. 5, Smith and colleagues found that the vast majority of firefighters who died from cardiac events had evidence of both enlarged heart and coronary heart disease revealed during autopsy.
“Most of the screening that’s currently done for firefighters is for coronary heart disease,” Smith said. “But our research shows that firefighters who die of cardiovascular events also have enlarged hearts. So we are suggesting that firefighters should be screened for enlarged hearts as well — particularly if they have risk factors — because the combination of those two types of cardiovascular disease greatly increase the risk of a sudden cardiac event.”
U.S. Rep. Paul D. Tonko said, “We know all too well that our firefighters are the last line of defense against tragedy for families, businesses and communities all across New York and the country. “
“I am grateful for the funding we have received in the past, but am particularly excited about this award,” Smith said. “Funding from FEMA AFG, and the political support that enables it, has been critical to building a stronger, healthier fire service.”