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Skidmore Awarded $1.4 Million For Research On Firefighter Deaths


Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs has been awarded nearly one-and-a-half million dollars for research into the medical cause of cardiac deaths among firefighters.

Congressman Paul Tonko announced Thursday that Skidmore College would receive more than $1.4 million from the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency. The FEMA grant is in cooperation with the U.S. Fire Administration.

The money will help fund research being conducted by Skidmore professor of health and exercise sciences Denise Smith.

Smith said by far the leading cause of death for firefighters during fire suppression work is not becoming trapped or injured by heat and smoke, but rather cardiac events.

“National estimates suggest that firefighters spend about 1 percent of their time fighting fires, and yet about 30 percent of their fatalities, their cardiac fatalities, occur during fire supression activities," said Smith.

Smith’s past research has focused on how stressful firefighting is.

“We've shown very high heart rates, a decrease in plasma volume, a decrease in stroke volume, arterial stiffness, myocardial impairment..."

The FEMA funding will help Smith, in working with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and Harvard Medical School Professor Dr. Stefanos Kales, study the autopsies of firefighters to determine the exact medical cause of their cardiac deaths.

Smith said cardiac deaths among firefighters are often commonly referred to as heart attacks, but she says her research will study what caused the cardiac episode – whether it be a blood clot, like a typical heart attack, or a problem with the rhythm of the heart.

"But as we prepared some pilot data for the grant application we found evidence of a blood clot in only 15 percent of the autopsies we've reviewed. In contrast, over 80 percent of the firefighters who died had evidence of an enlarged heart," said Smith.

She said preliminary evidence shows that arrhythmias are a far more common cause of death among firefighters than has been previously understood.

Congressman Tonko, who helped secure the funding, said the outcome of the research could help lawmakers craft policy to better protect firefighters and first responders "to work on areas of prevention and better screening that will strenghten the response that we in government can make to those awesome heroes - those firefighters - who protect property, and certainly lives, as do so many of our first responders."

The FEMA grant toward the national study being conducted at Skidmore is one of many Assistance to Firefighters Grants. During the fiscal year, the AFG will award another $288 million to first-responder organizations across the country for research, training, protective equipment, and emergency vehicles.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.