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Overweight Emergency Recruits Threaten Public Safety

Friday, March 12, 2010 by: M.Thornley
Tags: ambulance, obesity, health news

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(NewsTarget) A study published in the online journal Obesity, March 19, found that 75 percent of young recruits for fire and ambulance service in Massachusetts were overweight or obese. The study was conducted by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine, Boston Medical Center, Harvard University and the Cambridge Health Alliance. In emergencies, obese or overweight responders are at risk of injury or cardiac failure. The findings of the study have serious implications for public safety, the long term health of the applicants, and the economic viability of emergency services.

Data were drawn from two Massachusetts clinics for a study of firefighter and ambulance recruits between October 2004 and June 2007 using pre-placement medical data. Candidates older than age 35 were excluded from the study. Of 370 young recruits who had passed minimum criteria, only 22 percent were of normal weight, 43.8 percent were overweight, and 33 percent were obese. Today's young recruits, the study concluded, are heavier than older, veteran firefighters from the 1980s and 1990s.
Firefighting recruits with normal weight were able to achieve minimal exercise standards on a treadmill. This test, which measures aerobic capacity and endurance, is recommended by the National Fire Protection Association. Ninety-three percent of overweight recruits passed this test. But almost half of obese recruits failed.

Lead researcher Antonios Tsismenakis, a medical student at Boston University School of Medicine, noted that any health condition suddenly incapacitating an emergency responder also potentially compromises the safety of his or her co-workers and the community.

BMI, or body mass index, a method of measuring body fat based on height and weight, was used to define normal weight, overweight and obesity. The research team found a strong correlation between excess BMI and an increased cardiovascular risk profile, according to Dr. Stefanos Kales, director of Occupational and Environmental Medicine Residency, Harvard School of Public Health. Excess weight as measured by BMI can lead to heart disease or back and neck injuries, both prevalent among emergency responders.

Emergency responders such as firefighters, ambulance personnel, and police are expected to be able to perform without compromising the safety of themselves, their colleagues or the public. In past these professions recruited persons of above average fitness from a pool of healthy young adults. However, as obesity has become widespread in the USA, recruiters have had difficulty finding suitable applicants.

Widespread obesity among a youthful population also has significant long term implications since exercise levels generally decline as people age. Dr. Kales noted that young recruits were "probably at or near peak fitness." Since people tend to exercise less as they get older, at age 45 the cardiovascular profiles of the recruits, already unfavorable, could become much worse. Firefighters, ambulance personnel and police confront situations that are highly stressful psychologically and physically. Consequently, they are at high risk for cardiovascular events. Incapacitation during an emergency puts their colleagues and them, and members of the public, in danger.

Besides the dangers to public safety, the economic considerations are also significant. State and federal legislation provides benefits to emergency responders who die or are disabled on the job. A greater number of emergency personnel experiencing a disabling condition or fatality could negatively affect state or federal coffers.


About the author

M. Thornley enjoys walking, writing and pursuing a raw vegan diet and lifestyle.

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