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Firefighters' blood pressure surges in response to emergency calls

Research Highlights:

  • Blood pressure among firefighters often soars when they respond to emergencies.
  • In a small study with firefighters wearing blood pressure monitors at work, researchers found that blood pressure increased during both fire and medical calls.
  • Managing high blood pressure is particularly important for firefighters because hypertension may rise to dangerous levels during emergency calls.

Embargoed until 4 a.m. CT/5 a.m. ET, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021

(NewMediaWire) - November 08, 2021 - DALLAS - When the alarm sounds for an emergency, blood pressure among firefighters often soars, according to preliminary research funded by the American Heart Association and presented today at the Association’s Scientific Sessions 2021. The meeting will be fully virtual, Saturday, November 13 through Monday, November 15, 2021, and is a premier global exchange of the latest scientific advancements, research and evidence-based clinical practice updates in cardiovascular science for health care professionals worldwide.

“All emergency and first responders should be aware of their health. They should know what their typical blood pressure level is and be aware of how it fluctuates. Most important, if they have high blood pressure, they should make sure it is well-controlled,” said Deborah Feairheller, Ph.D., senior author of the study and director of the HEART (Hypertension and Endothelial function with Aerobic and Resistance Training) Lab and clinical associate professor of kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire.

From 2019-2021, 41 volunteer and municipal firefighters from the suburban Philadelphia area and from the Dover, New Hampshire, area wore ambulatory blood pressure monitors during an on-call work shift lasting at least 12 consecutive hours. In addition to the automatic blood pressure readings from the monitor, study participants were instructed to prompt the monitor to take a blood pressure reading whenever a pager or emergency call sounded and whenever they felt they entered a stressful situation. Participants documented activities and call types on log sheets for each measurement. The firefighters included 37 men and 4 women. Their average age was 41.2 years, and all participants were white. They had an average of 16.9 years on the job and measured as overweight or having obesity. Average body mass index (BMI) of all participants was 30.3, with BMI≥25 defined as overweight, while BMI≥30.0 is defined as obesity. The firefighters all had high blood pressure, defined as systolic blood pressure (the top number in a reading) as 130 mm Hg or higher, or a diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) of 80 mm Hg or higher, as defined by the American Heart Association’s most recent guideline.

The researchers found:

  • The average blood pressure during the shift was 131/79.3 mm Hg. Average heart rate was 75.7 beats per minute.
  • Compared with the reading immediately preceding the call, systolic blood pressure surged an average of 19.2 mm Hg with fire calls and 18.7 mm Hg with medical calls.
  • Compared with the reading immediately preceding the emergency call, diastolic (bottom number) blood pressure surged 10.5 mm Hg with fire calls and 16.5 mm Hg with medical calls.
  • Compared with the average blood pressure during the entire 12-hour shift, systolic blood pressure was 9% higher during fire calls, and diastolic blood pressure was 9% higher during medical calls.
  • Average heart rate also increased during both types of calls: 10 beats per minute with fire calls, and 15 beats per minute for medical calls.
  • There were no significant differences in blood pressure, heart rate or blood pressure surge levels when comparing responses among fire calls, medical calls, riding an emergency vehicle or false alarms.

“The public knows the value that emergency responders provide to communities. We hope to increase awareness that many firefighters have hypertension and that their blood pressure can increase to very dangerous levels when responding to emergency calls,” said Feairheller.

High blood pressure affects almost half of American adults, however, the rate of high-blood pressure among firefighters is much higher, with about three out of four affected. High blood pressure raises the risk of heart attack and stroke, and more than half of deaths among firefighters in the line of duty are related to cardiovascular disease.

“The current data show that almost 75% of firefighters have hypertension, and less than 25% have their blood pressure under control. I hope that our research can help identify occupational factors that affect blood pressure and increase awareness among this population,” said Feairheller.

They were also surprised at the findings on diastolic blood pressure increases. “We anticipated systolic blood pressure surges because that reading is usually more responsive to stimuli; however, the extent of the diastolic blood pressure surge was unexpected,” said Feairheller.
This pilot study is limited by including a small number of participants and not having blood pressure measurements collected when firefighters were away from work. Results from this group of firefighters who were white and mostly male may not be generalizable to women firefighters and those from diverse racial and ethnic groups.

The investigators are currently evaluating whether a healthy exercise and diet program could help to lower the blood pressure surge that firefighters experience during emergency calls.

Co-authors are Paige Rynne; Stephanie Donahue, B.S.; Megan A. Carty; Rachel L. Dickinson, B.S.; Meghan Lashley, B.S.; Emily H. Reeve, M.S.; Julia Gilpin, B.S.; Carly McMorrow; Andrew A. Almeida; Will Sherman; and Myra Arsenault. Authors’ disclosures are in the abstract.

The study was funded by the American Heart Association.

Additional Resources:

Statements and conclusions of studies that are presented at the American Heart Association’s scientific meetings are solely those of the study authors and do not necessarily reflect the Association’s policy or position. The Association makes no representation or guarantee as to their accuracy or reliability. The Association receives funding primarily from individuals; foundations and corporations (including pharmaceutical, device manufacturers and other companies) also make donations and fund specific Association programs and events. The Association has strict policies to prevent these relationships from influencing the science content. Revenues from pharmaceutical and biotech companies, device manufacturers and health insurance providers and the Association’s overall financial information are available here.

The American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2021 is a premier global exchange of the latest scientific advancements, research and evidence-based clinical practice updates in cardiovascular science for health care professionals worldwide. The 3-day meeting will feature more than 500 sessions focused on breakthrough cardiovascular basic, clinical and population science updates in a fully virtual experience Saturday, November 13 through Monday, November 15, 2021. Thousands of leading physicians, scientists, cardiologists, advanced practice nurses and allied health care professionals from around the world will convene virtually to participate in basic, clinical and population science presentations, discussions and curricula that can shape the future of cardiovascular science and medicine, including prevention and quality improvement. During the three-day meeting, attendees receive exclusive access to more than 4,000 original research presentations and can earn Continuing Medical Education (CME), Continuing Education (CE) or Maintenance of Certification (MOC) credits for educational sessions. Engage in Scientific Sessions 2021 on social media via #AHA21.

About the American Heart Association

The American Heart Association is a leading force for a world of longer, healthier lives. With nearly a century of lifesaving work, the Dallas-based association is dedicated to ensuring equitable health for all. We are a trustworthy source empowering people to improve their heart health, brain health and well-being. We collaborate with numerous organizations and millions of volunteers to fund innovative research, advocate for stronger public health policies, and share lifesaving resources and information. Connect with us on heart.org, Facebook, Twitter or by calling 1-800-AHA-USA1.

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