The Wayne Twp. Fire Department is working to improve firefighters' health.
It's no surprise that firefighting is a dangerous profession. But the biggest health risks they face might surprise you.
Firefighters do lose their lives in big blazes because of a flashover or a building collapse. But much more likely is that a firefighter dies of a heart attack.
"The average age of the first heart attack in the U.S. population is 66 and then in the fire service, the average age of the first heart attack is 49," said Dr. Steve Moffatt.
The death of 53-year-old Don Hochstetler in Wayne Township reveals another growing risk.
"Certain types of cancer are 300-400 times more for firefighters than the general population," said Matt Stewart, Wayne Township Fire Department Chief of Operations.
Hochstetler, a father of three, died of squamous cell carcinoma.
"He was the first firefighter that was considered a line of duty death for cancer," Stewart said.
The information from Hochstetler's death is leading to change. There is increasing emphasis on wearing masks and cleaning gear after exposure to toxins.
"These materials stay around...have been shown to stay around for days, maybe even up to a week or two on the gear, on the material that they wear, so it keeps being absorbed and given off from the gear after it's put away," Moffatt said.
Interrupted sleep, loud noises and exertion add to heart attack risk, so to identify who is at increased risk earlier, Wayne Township is conducting four annual health assessments One of the tests measures the time it takes to complete an obstacle course.
There are also physicals with blood draws and screening for cancer. This week, peer fitness trainers are meeting to learn how to be more effective mentors.
"Firefighters tend to probably receive information better from a fellow firefighter because they understand the job," Moffatt said.
Firefighters have updated gyms for the industrial athletes and firehouse food is also on the radar.
Collectively, they say it is working.
"What we clearly have seen is a reduction in risk factors of cholesterol, blood pressure," Moffatt said.
Over time, the goal is more 30-plus year careers and a fewer injuries and deaths for these teams who answer the call for help.
To further address environmental risks, Wayne Township fire houses are now converting from bunk style to individual sleeping rooms and adjusting alarms to start at a lower volume and slowly increase them to minimize noise exposure.