Skidmore Professor Denise Smith thinks more can be done to improve one of firefighters’ most important pieces of equipment: their hearts.
Now, she has won a $1.3 million federal grant to help in that endeavor. Smith, whose recent research found that sudden cardiac events, the majority of which can be linked to enlarged hearts, are the prime cause of line-of-duty deaths among firefighters.
Despite the findings, based on the autopsies of 600 firefighters who died in the line of duty, fire departments throughout the country do not screen firefighters for signs of an enlarged heart. A set of screening recommendations from the National Fire Protection Agency also does not mention the condition, she said.
“Most civilians think if you are going into a burning building the greatest risk is collapse or burns or smoke inhalation,” she said in an interview Friday. “But really the [fatal] cardiac events are a many-fold greater risk.”
The two-year grant, under the FEMA Assistance to Firefighters program, will support Smith’s efforts to develop a testing protocol that screens firefighters -- particularly those with other risk factors -- for signs of enlarged hearts and other health issues.
In Smith’s research, done in partnership with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, she found 82 percent of firefighters who died from sudden cardiac arrest displayed signs of an enlarged heart.
“We think it’s really important we understand this issue and get more firefighters screened to see if they have both types of cardiovascular disease,” Smith said.
During the course of the grant, Smith and her team at Skidmore’s First Responder Health and Safety Laboratory will work with medical professionals and fire departments in suburban Chicago and suburban Washington D.C. to develop new recommendations for extending and fine-tuning the kinds of heart health tests done for the safety of firefighters.
“This is something, it comes out of my research for sure, but it’s also the result of fire departments calling me and saying, ‘We read your findings. What should we know?’” Smith said. “They very much want this translation.”