An unseen danger for firefighters

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SPOKANE, Wash. – Firefighters are active, physically fit and strong. But their stories are reminders that everyone should focus on their heart health. 

Cardiac death is the No. 1 killer of active duty firefighters, accounting for 47 percent of on duty deaths, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. 

Mike Rose served as a firefighter in Spokane for 36 years.

“It’s scary at times, it’s exciting. It's incredibly rewarding that you're willing to do things that a lot of other people aren't willing to do. And you make a positive impact on people's lives,” Rose said.

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He said the camaraderie is the best part of being a firefighter. Case in point: his 30-year friendship with paramedic Tim Loncon.

Loncon and Rose were close friends before March 28, 2013 but they shared a bonding experience unlike any other that evening. 

“We had just come back from a call. We backed into the station, and Mike had walked into the day room which was kind of abnormal.  Usually they're headed back into the dorms…because when we leave, we leave fairly fast. One of the other guys yelled, ‘Hey, Mike's down!’” Loncon said.

Loncon began performing CPR after Rose suffered a cardiac arrest.

“That's not supposed to happen. Things like that aren't supposed to happen,” Loncon said. “You're not supposed to be working on your own family members and that's what we consider ourselves.”

Rose said he did not have symptoms before the cardiac arrest. 

“I was lucky enough that I was standing next to a paramedic that started CPR on me right away and saved my life,” Rose said. “I remember being in the fire station, waking up in the hospital and nothing in between.”

Rose was lucky. He made a full recovery and continued firefighting for a few more years before his retirement.

Others are not as fortunate, which is why Chief Brian Schaeffer said the department is trying to do what it can to prevent cardiac deaths. 

“If you take a look and reflect really on what a firefighter's job looks like, you have to realize that they're on duty for 24 hours and during those 24 hours they may not sleep at all,” he said.

The combination of the job's mental and physical stress can be disastrous for firefighters, Schaeffer said. The organization’s response to the threat is focused on wellness: access to annual physical exams, gym equipment and trainers.

 

 

Annual physicals and fitness guidelines are particularly effective at combating cardiac death among firefighters, according to research from the University of California at Davis.

Still, the threat remains.

“That’s something we're all aware of. And I managed my weight, I exercised regularly, I did all of the things you're supposed to do. And it still happened to me,” Rose said.

Schaeffer is working with city leaders to allocate more funding for other programs. He is especially interested in yoga and meditation for stress relief.