Staff Heart and Lung Health Top Priority for West Metro Fire

According to a 2018 study, most firefighter deaths from cardiac arrest are due to a narrowing of the arteries or structural damage in their hearts. In an examination of autopsy data from 627 male firefighters ages 18-65, 82 percent of deaths had evidence of coronary heart disease, supporting this claim. But heart health remains a major health concern that affects everyone, not just firefighters.

In fact, according to the CDC, about 610,000 people die of heart disease each year, with coronary heart disease, the most common type, accounting for more than 60 percent. In addition to heart disease, lung cancer, another major concern for firefighters, claims more lives than any other type of cancer. Armed with this knowledge, West Metro Fire Protection District set out to make a difference and focused their attention on employee heart and lung health.

West Metro is a member of both the CSD Pool and the Colorado Firefighter Heart and Cancer Benefits Trust (CFHC Trust). The CFHC Trust was created in 2014 to focus solely on heart malfunction, which was excluded from Colorado’s workers’ compensation system. The CFHC Trust expanded in July 2017 to address cancer. While cancer was part of the workers’ compensation system, its inclusion had largely been problematic for firefighters, employers, and workers’ compensation providers alike.

Because of the restrictions, firefighters and other emergency technicians too often struggled to get treatment for their condition and were often met with long delays when receiving benefits.

However, in the fall of 2018—and continuing through the first few months of 2019—that all changed when West Metro began offering preventative heart and lung scans not only for their firefighters but for the entire staff as well.

“The number one goal is to make sure the firefighters are healthy and can continue working for years to come,” said Shannon Rush, West Metro’s Human Resources Manager.

Before this initiative became reality, West Metro had concerns that they were not doing enough to address staff preventative care. Although there was an established protocol already in place, the worry remained that its impact might be too little, too late.

Fortunately, the CFHC Trust set up a program called the Firefighter Heart Fitness Grant for participants of its Heart Award Program. To qualify for these grants, firefighters who receive screenings must be eligible and covered under the terms of the Heart Award Program.

However, since this program solely covered firefighters, West Metro was only able to get a portion of the costs subsidized by the CFHC Trust. This prompted them to partner with Denver Cardiology to offset the additional costs for all other employees who were ineligible through the CFHC Trust and its grant program.

Through their agreement with Denver Cardiology, which included heart and lung scans for firefighters as well as the administrative staff, West Metro received a discounted price. From here, the remainder of the costs were subsidized by their use of the CSD Pool’s Safety and Loss Prevention Grant funds.

“The [Safety] grant was essential to getting this done,” Rush said.

The ultimate goal of these scans was to measure calcium levels in the body and look for irregular nodules located in the lungs and chest, which might be indicative of cancer or a heart condition.

“The biggest hurdle was getting people out to do it. It was a slow start, but as soon as people heard things were getting found, they went,” Rush said. “We probably found about twenty people with issues that popped up and needed to see a specialist.”

Overall, about three-quarters of West Metro’s entire staff became involved in the program and received heart and lung scans. Due to the results, some firefighters deemed to be at risk were pulled off the lines.

The CFHC Trust has additional grant programs to help participating firefighters who have previously had significant heart issues such as heart attack and stroke. While it does not apply to angina or hypertension, it does provide valuable resources to firefighters afflicted by cardiac issues.

Building Steam

Although the initiative took time to gain traction among staff, the response turned overwhelmingly positive once previously unknown medical conditions were being discovered. The reality of what West Metro Fire was trying to accomplish finally started to hit home. If it was not for these scans, certain medical problems would have remained under the radar for some of the district’s staff. Now, with the knowledge from these scans, the affected staff could immediately begin working on a potentially life-saving treatment plan.

The biggest piece of advice Rush had to give to other districts looking to replicate their success has to do with the parameters of the project.

“Partner with your local providers and cardiologist teams, and make it easy for people,” Rush said. “If it’s not an easy process, people won’t do it.”

Fire districts looking to replicate West Metro’s success can join the Heart Program or Cancer program, if they haven’t done so already. For the Heart Program, the cost of adding qualifying career firefighters is zero because of available reimbursement from the Department of Local Affairs.

Trust members receive an allocation in the form of a $50 grant annually per firefighter to help offset heart screening costs.

Above all, the success West Metro achieved can be attributed to their care and creativity. Preventative care for their entire staff came with a price tag, but they thought outside the box and explored options through their community and the CSD Pool. With persistence, ingenuity, and word of mouth, this initiative gained traction and, most importantly, made West Metro a healthier place for its staff and a safer place for the community.

For more about the CFHC Trust’s Heart Award Program please visit: http://cfhtrust.com/heart. For more about the Firefighter Heart Fitness Grant visit: http://cfhtrust.com/grants/fhfg
Special thanks to Shannon Rush for her assistance with this article. Photos courtesy of West Metro Fire Protection District.

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