Preventing Heart Attacks in Firefighters

By Briana Vannozzi

Every year nearly 100 firefighters die on the job and one half of those deaths are from fatal heart attacks. These statistics remain consistent year in and out. The very nature of the job automatically puts them at a higher risk.

“Being a firefighter, you never know when the bell is gonna ring, when the alarm is gonna sound. We basically go from 0 to 100 like that,” said Rich Mikutsky, vice president of the Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association (FMBA).

Doctors say it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why firefighters have some of the highest rates. But those in the business have a few ideas.

“There’s the obvious weight of our equipment, our tools, our Scott Pack, but then there’s the other part of it where we start and stop quickly, ya know, at anytime at night when we could be at full rest we may have to get up and be at full speed,” said Paterson firefighter Kyle Hughes.

Extended exposure to traumatic stress, both mentally and physically, boosts inflammation in the body, increasing the risk. Continuous disruptions to the sleep-wake cycle can lead to lower metabolic rates linked directly to heart failure.

“Yesterday we had a big fire in Clifton. It started around 1 p.m. and we had a number of guys that suffered heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation, had to be taken to the hospital and fortunately everyone was all right but I saw a couple of them last night around 8 o’clock and they were exhausted. They’re out there for hours upon hours, the heat with that equipment on. Yeah, it’s tough when it happens and when you’re going its non-stop,” said Clifton firefighter Patrick Cassidy.

It all takes a toll. So the statewide fireman’s union — FMBA — is encouraging members to get a CT scan, like one we saw at St. Joe’s in Clifton, to check their calcium scoring and probability for a heart attack.

“What we’re trying to look at is the buildup of calcium within the coronary arteries,” explained Dr. Frank Yuppa, chairman of the Department of Radiology.

Yuppa heads the radiology department and explains that calcium is a marker of additional plaque within the arteries. The higher the amount, the greater the risk.

“By screening them it’s the most sensitive way of knowing if someone has atherosclerosis or not. Most people that have a heart attack are going to have narrowing of less than 50 to 60 percent of their arteries. Most people are going to pass their stress test,” said Yuppa.

Doctors also say family history, high cholesterol and blood pressure are key reasons. And not to be fooled by otherwise good health.

Yuppa said firefighters may pass a stress test and may not have any symptoms but could still be a risk for a heart attack.

The whole process takes about 15 minutes for the firefighters to have the scan done and results in hand. It costs about $100, and the FMBA is working with imaging centers statewide to provide the screenings.