February is American Heart Month: Know Your Health

By Kimberly Quiros, Chief of Communications, NVFC

The U.S. Fire Administrated reported 36 firefighters died in the line of duty in 2013 due to heart attack. This has remained the leading cause of on-duty firefighter deaths year after year. Many more firefighters suffer from life threatening or life altering illnesses related to their heart health.

February is American Heart Month, a time when people across the nation are focusing on their heart health and making changes to their lifestyle to help reduce heart disease risk factors. Use this opportunity to learn what you can do to lessen your risk of heart attack, improve your overall health, and strengthen your abilities as a firefighter or EMT.

First responders must be ready at a moment’s notice to battle very demanding emergencies, and it is critical that they be physically and mentally prepared for the job at hand. Yet many first responders struggle with medical issues such as hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. At the very least these illnesses can cause a firefighter or EMT to be less efficient on the job or less able to complete necessary tasks. At the worst, these health conditions can cause the firefighter to have a medical emergency on the scene, during training, or immediately after a response, putting both that individual and those depending on them at risk.

The first step in preventing or overcoming heart-related medical conditions is to know your health. Follow your physician’s recommendations for physicals and health screenings, and make sure to tell your physician you are a first responder. Educate yourself on various heart health risk factors, such as hypertension and obesity, and learn what you can do to minimize your risks and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Take steps to improve your lifestyle by incorporating fitness and healthy eating, managing stress, limiting alcohol, and quitting smoking.

The National Volunteer Fire Council’s Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program is there to help you know your health and reduce your risk factors. The Heart-Healthy Firefighter web site provides tools to help you focus on your own health as well as start or expand a health and wellness program in your department. Visit www.healthy-firefighter.org to access these resources.

Heart disease is a known danger to firefighters and emergency responders. Take proactive measures to know your health and what you can do to keep your heart strong for yourself and those who depend on you. Here are some tips to help you know and strengthen your health when it comes to five key areas.

High Blood Pressure

  1. Have your blood pressure checked regularly – knowing your numbers helps you stay in charge of your health.
  2. Maintain a healthy weight range, based on your age and gender (as recommended by a physician).
  3. Participate in a minimum of 30-60 minutes of moderately intense activity 5 times per week.
  4. Reduce your salt intake, choosing reduced-sodium food options when available.
  5. Take medications as directed and speak with your physician about any questions or concerns.
  6. Reduce alcohol consumption, which constricts blood vessels and causes an increase in blood pressure.
  7. Increase your potassium intake to help lessen the effects of sodium on blood pressure.
  8. Avoid tobacco products, which cause blood pressure to increase.
  9. Cut back on caffeine, which can increase blood pressure.
  10. Take steps to reduce your stress outside of the fire station.


  1. Have your cholesterol levels checked regularly – knowing your numbers helps you stay in charge of your health.
  2. Participate in a minimum of 30-60 minutes of moderately intense activity 5 times per week.
  3. Avoid foods high in saturated fats, such as butter, margarine, and vegetable oil; choose healthier canola or olive oil instead.
  4. Get more fiber in your diet to help lower your cholesterol.
  5. Eat more fish, which is high in the cholesterol-combatting omega-3 fatty acids.
  6. Reduce alcohol consumption.
  7. Choose nuts for a snack to help lower cholesterol (but look for them with reduced or no salt).
  8. Quit using tobacco products, which can harden the arteries.
  9. Check the food label to find out how much cholesterol it contains, plus which ingredients the cholesterol comes from.
  10. Try swapping out your afternoon coffee for a fruit smoothie, which provides a natural source of energy while increasing your fiber intake.


  1. Get screened for diabetes regularly – knowing your numbers helps you stay in charge of your health.
  2. Manage your blood pressure and cholesterol as elevated levels are risk factors for diabetes.
  3. Know your family history and discuss it with your doctor; diabetes can be passed genetically.
  4. Make sure your physician knows that you are a first responder; high-stress situations can cause your body to produce more insulin, dangerously lowering your blood glucose levels.
  5. Participate in a minimum of 30-60 minutes of moderately intense activity 5 times per week.
  6. Stay hydrated by getting at least eight, eight-ounce servings (64 ounces) of water per day at minimum.
  7. Eat regularly. Skipping meals can cause your blood glucose to drop, so keep healthy snacks at the station to keep you going during long shifts.
  8. Maintain a healthy weight range, based on your age and gender (as recommended by a physician).
  9. Quit using tobacco products, which can raise blood glucose levels, constrict blood vessels, and cause inflammation.
  10. Try to get 7-8 hours of sleep per day to keep hormone levels balanced, which helps you resist unhealthy snacking.  

Managing Weight

  1. Talk to your physician to find out what a healthy weight and Body Mass Index (BMI) is for you.
  2. Read the food labels, checking for both total content of fat, cholesterol, sodium, and other potentially unhealthy components, as well as the ingredient list to see where these come from.
  3. Limit alcohol consumption based on physician recommended amounts as determined by your individual health, gender, and weight.
  4. Try eating five small meals a day rather than three big ones, which helps control hunger levels to avoid overeating.
  5. Eat more fish, which is low in fat and high in cholesterol-combatting omega-3 fatty acids.
  6. Choose leaner meats and poultry over the higher fat options, and remove the skins.
  7. Bake, grill, or broil food instead of frying it. 
  8. Have multiple servings of vitamin- and fiber-full vegetables and fruits each day. 
  9. Choose healthy whole grain products to provide fiber and keep you feeling full longer.
  10. Participate in a minimum of 30-60 minutes of moderately intense activity 5 times per week.

Quit Smoking

  1. Remember that you are NOT alone ‒ find a support group or mentor to help you through the process.
  2. Nibble on low calorie snacks like fruits and veggies.
  3. Chew gum when a craving hits.
  4. Remove unnecessary reminders, such as ashtrays and lighters, from your house, car, and office.
  5. Write a list of the reasons you want to quit smoking so that you can remind yourself of why you are going through this process.
  6. Find a type of exercise that you enjoy and steadily work it into your routine.
  7. Keep a log of when you most often crave a cigarette so that you can plan a strategy to avoid the triggers.
  8. Carry a book, magazine, or crossword puzzle with you to help keep you occupied while on breaks, waiting for a bus, or during other moments when you may be bored and would normally smoke.
  9. After dinner, suck on a hard candy, sip your favorite beverage, or use a toothpick to substitute the cigarette.
  10. Don’t be discouraged if you give in – it takes many people several tries to quit for good.

Learn more and access resources for getting and staying healthy at www.healthy-firefighter.org/know-your-health

Sources: American College of Sports Medicine; American Diabetes Association; American Heart Association; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Mayo Clinic; MedlinePlus – National Institutes of Health; National Sleep Foundation; NVFC Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; U.S. Department of Agriculture