Firefighters, Be Heart Smart!


Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Photo Courtesy of Landon Jensen

February Is Heart Awareness Month!

It’s no secret firefighters have a higher risk of heart disease compared to non-firefighters. You don’t think you’re at risk? Think again! Cardiovascular disease is the cause of 45 percent of the line-of-duty deaths among firefighters. And just staying fit is not protection enough. Many fire service personnel I know lead healthy lifestyles; however, prior to diagnosis they had no clue they had heart disease.

Though most of our elevated risk is related to the occupational exposure to carcinogens, as well as the massive stress our bodies take on during emergency response, some of it has to do with our firehouse lifestyle, such as burgers, burritos and spaghetti. Not to mention those late night bowls of ice cream. And even some factors that seem inherent to the job — like lack of sleep or exposure to toxins — can be managed or reduced with a little effort.

February is Heart Awareness Month. Together, we can prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD) one step at a time. Together with your loved ones and others in your organization, make it a policy to:

  • Get a check-up with your doctor and repeat it yearly. Make sure your doctor knows you’re a firefighter and discuss the exposure you have and the risks such exposure brings. Be prepared with your family’s history of heart problems. Ask whether you should have a stress test or other forms of monitoring. Remember: Physicians are often pressed for time and used to seeing very sick individuals. If you’re healthy, you may need to push a little and ask lots of questions to ensure you’re getting thorough care.
  • Wear your PPE. Tests repeatedly show high levels of carcinogens in fire buildings long after knock down. Follow your department’s policies for atmospheric monitoring and stay on air until the all-clear is given, even during overhaul and other situations that appear harmless.
  • Practice decon. Following a fire, thoroughly clean your PPE and yourself. Decon should start on the fireground, using water to clean PPE and baby wipes to clean your skin, and continue in the station. Take a hot shower following any working fire, and thoroughly clean and inspect your PPE.
  • Monitor your blood pressure. High blood pressure often has no symptoms—that’s why it’s called the “silent killer.” Be sure to have it checked on a regular basis. We have the equipment on the rigs to so, use it!
  • Get your cholesterol checked and eat a healthy diet. Cooking healthy meals and choosing nutritious snack options can help you avoid CVD and its complications.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. We have the time—exercise while on duty! Being overweight or obese can increase your risk for CVD. Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco. Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk for CVD. Though smoking is becoming more taboo in many places of the country, I’ve noticed an increase in firefighters who “chew.” This is equally if not more harmful than cigarettes.
  • Limit alcohol use. Avoid drinking too much alcohol, which can increase your blood pressure.
  • Manage your diabetes. If you have diabetes, monitor your blood sugar levels closely. Take your medicine. If you’re taking medication to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or another condition, follow the instructions carefully.

Need more inspiration? Join the Million Hearts® initiative for tips that can inspire you throughout February and all year long! For more information on heart disease in firefighters check this out –

Stay safe, stay healthy!

About Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif.