Breckenridge fire department puts focus on firefighter health | SummitDaily.com
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Breckenridge fire department puts focus on firefighter health

Caddie NathSummit Daily News

BRECKENRIDGE – In 2004, the Red, White and Blue Fire District lost a firefighter to an unforeseen heart attack. In 2005, it didn’t.After engineer Barrie Niebergall, a 20-year veteran firefighter, passed away while working out during a shift, Red, White and Blue officials began taking stock of their health and wellness programs and testing and, the following year, began a partnership with Colorado State University through the Heart Disease Prevention Program to have all staff firefighters go through a full medical evaluation at the campus in Fort Collins. During the testing that first year, CSU researchers came across an abnormality in one firefighter’s screening. It turned out to be an undetected heart condition that required six-way bypass heart surgery. The firefighter had had no signs or symptoms of a medical condition prior to the test. “It would have killed him,” Red, White and Blue fire chief Lori Miller said. “Essentially, the first year (the program) saved a life.” Today, it is estimated that approximately half of the firefighters who die in the line of duty nationwide are victims, not of fires, but of heart attacks and strokes. Through they tend to stay in good physical condition, their eating habits and the zero-to-60 stress-level fluctuations that are part of the nature of their jobs often put them at higher risk for heart problems. The problem is a top priority for new fire chief Miller, who has lobbied for health and wellness programs for firefighters throughout her career. “We look for every opportunity to bring in new tools and resources to educate and evaluate the health and wellness of our (staff),” Miller said. This year, the department found a new tool. The program, a joint effort by United Health Care and the Mayo Clinic, provides firefighters with regular interactive tools to improve their nutrition, stress levels and overall health. Participants keep daily logs of their activities and receive feedback and personal data and updates, such as body mass index, online to help them live healthier lives. The program allows participants to rack up points by reading online health literature, using resources and keeping the logs. When it gets 66 percent of the department engaged in the program and each participant earns1,000 or more points, Red, White and Blue will be eligible for health insurance premium discounts. “There’s life after the fire service,” Miller said. “That’s my goal, (that) they can enjoy their retirement.” Right now, the fairly young department is on the right track to do just that. The exceptional health and well being of the department was recently recognized by health researchers from the Institute for Bio-behavioral Health Research who worked with Red, White and Blue on a Firefighter Injury & Risk Evaluation Study. “Our research on both this project and our American Heart Association funded project has taken us to more than 50 fire departments and literally hundreds of firehouses across the country,” a lead researcher wrote to the fire department. “Your department’s focus on fitness, wellness and the overall culture of health is among the most impressive we have encountered to date.”While there are currently no mandatory health standards for firefighters at Red, White and Blue they are encouraged to work out during every shift and expected to test above the 50th percentile of the general public in physical fitness.Red, White and Blue continues to invest approximately $20,000 annually in health and wellness programs for firefighters and administrative staff. It’s money, officials say, is well spent. “If you have a happy, healthy workforce, you’re going to get that 10 times back,” Red, White and Blue spokeswoman Kim Scott said.


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