More than 1000 American firefighters died in the line of duty during the 11 years up to 2004 (excluding the extra deaths associated with the terrorist attack on 11 September 2001). A close look at the national records showed that nearly 40% (449/1114) of them died of heart disease.
One third of the deaths from heart disease occurred while fighting fires, which takes up only 5% of an average firefighter's time. The odds of dying from heart disease while fighting a fire were 10-100 times higher than those of dying during non-emergency duties. Responding to alarms, returning from alarm calls, and training were also significantly riskier than non-emergency duties, but to a lesser extent than the actual firefight.
According to Dr. Simeon Margolis, “The heart disease risk among firefighters rose to as high as 100 times greater while actively fighting fires, compared to performing administrative duties."
Most firefighters are likely to be healthy and physically fit when first recruited in their 20's. But their ability to serve in a physically demanding and stressful environment appears to decline over the years. And volunteer firefighters, who make up approximately 80 percent of the America's one million firefighters, have less-demanding health requirements at the time of recruitment and are rarely subject to regular physicals and fitness tests.
Margolis comments, “The message is clear: Firefighters and others in similarly demanding occupations must be particularly careful to identify and control heart disease risk factors." Margolis feels that all firefighters, regardless of avocation, must remain physically active not only to control weight but also to maintain a proper level of fitness. And as a firefighters gains more time on the job, regular check-ups become even more important because their age already places them at greater risk for a heart attack.