Firefighters Battle More Than Just Fires

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Walking treadmills, getting hooked up to monitors and going through a variety of cardiovascular tests, has become a normal drill for members of the Bryan Fire Department.

Every year, the local heroes come together at Texas A&M's Netum Steed training facility, to fight heart disease.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found heart disease to be the most frequent cause of death among firefighters.

The study revisited an alarming statistic, heart disease causes 45% of deaths in on-duty firemen. It also revealed nearly 70% of fire departments lack health and fitness programs.

"They found that these firefighters have some sort of underlying heart disease," said Steve Martin, the FITLIFE program coordinator. "If we can detect that, and look at prevention programs, then we may be able to prevent some of these deaths in the line of duty."

Texas A&M has assisted firefighters with clinical testing since 1984, through the FITLIFE program.

The program offers a cardiovascular health profile on some of the main risk factors for heart disease.

"We look at blood pressure, hypertension, we do ECG's at rest, and also a stress test with ECG's," said Martin. "We look to see if there are any abnormalities when the heart is put under stress."

Cardiologists with Scott & White were also on hand to assist and go over medical history with the emergency responders.

"Up to 50% of deaths in firefighters occur from heart disease, so what we try to do is a more controlled stress evaluation," said Scott & White Cardiologist Dan Larsen.

Bryan firefighters say the program has been lifesaving for some of their own.

"We tend to be in a business where fitness is really important, and not many of us partake of it," said Bryan Fire Department Lieutenant Michael Petty. "We've caught several guys with a heart problem."

The FITLIFE program also gives A&M students a chance to apply what they've learned in the classroom, in a real world setting.

"They're putting their skills to work, mastering all the hands-on skills they're going to take with them, when they go to their internships and their careers," Martin said.

For the firefighters undergoing a couple of hours of testing, they say it's worth it. If in the end, the doctor can give them a clean bill of health.