Two New Studies Focus on Firefighter Heart Health

A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looks at whether doctors are providing sufficient weight advice to obese and overweight firefighters. Another study is being conducted at Ursinus College to examine physical stress impact on the cardiac health of volunteer firefighters. These two studies are the latest evidence that underscores the critical need to focus on heart health in the fire and emergency services.

According to the CDC study, more than 70 percent of firefighters are overweight or obese. Obesity threatens firefighter health and safety and can lead to job-related disability, high blood pressure, and heart disease. With heart attack the leading cause of line-of-duty death, and obesity a risk factor for heart disease, maintaining a healthy weight is critical for firefighters. In previous research, it has been found that health care provider (HCP) advice on weight loss has a positive impact on individuals’ desires to lose weight, attempts to lose weight, and success at losing weight. This study investigated how prevalent HCP weight advice was among career male firefighters and the association of age and body mass index (BMI) with this advice.

 82.5 percent of the firefighters studied were overweight or obese. However, most firefighters (69.2 percent) reported receiving no weight advice from their HCP in the past year. Less than half of the obese firefighters and only 12 percent of the overweight firefighters received advice to lose weight. It was also found that age and BMI did have an impact – younger overweight and class I obese firefighters were less likely to receive advice to lose weight than their older counterparts, and class II or III obese firefighters were more likely to receive weight loss advice regardless of their age than those with a lower BMI.

The study concludes: “Firefighters are a high-risk group for obesity, which increases their risk for injury, disability, and mortality. Reducing overweight and obesity in the fire service could correspond to an improvement in overall firefighter health and public safety. HCPs should appropriately advise firefighters on weight loss and maintenance according to national guidelines; however, this study identified inconsistent weight loss advice for overweight and obese firefighters. In particular, young overweight and obese firefighters are not receiving adequate weight counseling.” It goes on to state that, “The lack of HCP intervention on overweight and obese firefighters’ weight marks a missed opportunity for prevention of obesity-related comorbidities in the fire service.”

Read full CDC study here.

Another study is being conducted by an Ursinus College professor that focuses on cardiovascular and stress issues specifically for volunteer firefighters. In the pilot study, firefighters are given a stress test while their blood pressure and heart rate are monitored. The test is conducted first when the firefighter is in regular clothing and then again when the firefighter is in full bunker gear.

Since most similar studies have focused on career firefighters, researcher Deborah Feairheller thought it was important to conduct her study on volunteers. She is hoping to expand her research to a larger study in the future.

Read article about the Ursinus College study here.

The importance of lowering heart disease risk factors and taking steps to manage heart health is not new to the fire service. Heart attacks are consistently the leading cause of line-of-duty firefighter fatalities each year. However, studies such as these help re-emphasize the need among emergency responders to focus on heart health and bring national attention to this need.

In 2003, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) launched the Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program to help first responders get and stay healthy as well as assist departments in implementing a successful health and wellness program. Find resources to get and stay heart healthy at The NVFC also released a study in 2011 on the prevalence of obesity in the fire service as well as recommendations for combatting this epidemic. Download the NVFC study here.