Heart to Heart Advice to My Fellow Fire Chiefs


Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Photo Courtesy of Landon Jensen

You’re a chief officer now, congratulations! You’re at the top of your organization’s ladder, so it’s easy street now, right? Wrong!

Chances are you got the position because you worked harder than others, advanced your career with schooling and specialized fire-related training while off-duty. You took on and worked extra projects and assignments away from your family and personal life. In your early stages as a firefighter, you were proudly known as the one who was “first in and last out” during fires and incidents.

You eat, breathe, sleep the fire service — a truly dedicated individual, all good for you and those you serve, right? Wrong again!

Fire service personnel have a higher risk of heart disease compared to nonfirefighters. As a chief officer, you’re at an even higher risk than the others not only because of the above, but also due to the stress as a fire chief. No one knows what I’m talking about here unless you’ve been there, done that.

City managers, council and board members, labor and community groups all chomping at you at one time or another. It’s like a 24/7 cycle. One week one group loves you, the next week they hate you. And the cycle rotates continuously.

You’re that “at will” employee on the chopping block at any given moment who wants to do right with the members of your organization and the community you serve — only to go home at night (while always on call) wondering who is upset at you now.

How many times do you check your email when you’re off-duty or on vacation? Have you ever snapped at your wife or family members because you were on edge about work?

When you’ve been at dinner, a show or a concert, how many times did you check your phone to see if a member of your command staff or city manager was trying to contact you? What percentage of the time were you actually “present” at an event, or what was the amount of time you were actually subconsciously thinking about work?

Cardiovascular disease is the cause of 45 percent of the line-of-duty deaths among firefighters. Throw in the added stress of being a chief, and you just increase your chances of heart disease.

“Hey, wait a minute, Chief Sam. I work out, eat right and maintain my stress levels. I got this, right?” Chances are, wrong again. Heart disease is the “silent killer,” 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 — including myself.

February is Heart Awareness Month. As chiefs, 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 fire chief, 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 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 knockdown. 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 do 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.

Check out this CDC page for additional tips that can inspire you throughout February and all year long: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2007-133/

Be Heart Smart!

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.