Fire officials ponder physicals in aftermath of death

February 01, 1991|By Roger Twigg

Baltimore's Fire Department, which does not require periodic physical examinations or physical fitness programs for its members, is considering whether they are needed because of the death Sunday of a lieutenant who suffered a heart attack while fighting a fire.

Capt. Patrick P. Flynn, a department spokesman, said no funds were available for such physicals.

He also suggested that "a lot of them [members of the department] would probably lose their jobs" as "unfit" if physical fitness were mandated.

However, medical exams given city firefighters between 1986 and 1988 showed their condition was well within national norms, officials said.

Lt. John N. Plummer, 47, a 23-year veteran of the department, died Sunday after he suffered a massive heart attack while fighting a fire in the 800 block of West Lombard Street.

Because fire officials have cut back on the manning of fire apparatus, Lieutenant Plummer, who ordinarily would have been a supervisor at the scene, carried a hose into the burning building alone and died when he returned to the street.

An autopsy showed he had suffered a prior heart attack and might have died without going through the stress of fighting the blaze.

"Sometimes it takes a tragedy of this type to bring the issue to front and center," commented David L. Glenn, Baltimore's fire board president.

Mr. Glenn added, "I have raised the question [of physicals] after seeing several [firefighters] I thought were grossly overweight. I think it's something we ought to do. But it's so darn expensive. We have to first consider what our basic mission is."

Firefighters in Howard and Baltimore counties undergo periodic physical examinations. None is required in Anne Arundel County. But in each of those jurisdictions, time and equipment are allotted for firefighters' physical fitness programs.

Jeff DeLisle, president of Firefighters Local 734, said Lieutenant Plummer's heart condition might have been detected through required physicals.

He "is not going to be the last firefighter to drop dead on the fire grounds," the union president said. "The years take their toll on you in the Fire Department."

Of the heart attack victim, Mr. DeLisle said, "I knew him well. He took the promotion to lieutenant a couple of years ago because he knew he was getting up in age and needed to get away from doing the grunt work."

The union president said that because of the hazardous nature of the work and the stress involved, firefighters should be given regular physicals to determine whether they are able to perform satisfactorily.

Studies have shown a firefighter's life expectancy is about 12 years shorter than the national average, Mr. DeLisle said.

"We have the highest injury rate of any occupation in the country. You would think that they would do everything they could to keep injuries down. Believe me, if a firefighter has a heart attack, it's because of his work. To me, they are being penny-wise and dollar-foolish," he said.

The union's health and safety committee has raised the issue in several meetings with fire administrators, only to be told that no money was available, he said.

"They are always taking the short-term budget approach rather than look at the long-term medical costs of losing someone on medical," he said.

In 1986, the union won in its contract a provision for firefighters' stress tests at the sports medicine center at Union Memorial Hospital.

The tests -- conducted between October 1986 and October 1988 -- revealed that the firemen were in "better shape than we thought" and were well within the national norms, according to Neil A. MacDonald, director of the clinic. The tests cost $150 for each of the 1,800 firefighters who volunteered. About 200 did not participate.

"After they were tested, our hope was to have it ongoing," Mr. MacDonald said, "but they didn't. It was pure economics. It was costing the city $150 per firefighter."

He said the city needed to decide whether it wanted to spend its money on preventive medicine or on treating the firefighters later.

When the firemen were tested, four were determined to need immediate open heart surgery and 11 others were diagnosed as potential risks and referred for further diagnosis.

"It's our belief that we helped save lives with this program. We were able to detect abnormalities that they knew nothing about," Mr. MacDonald said.

He said all of the firefighters requiring surgery or treatment either returned to duty or retired.

Peter O'Connor, Baltimore's fire chief, declined yesterday to discuss the issue publicly. He said through a spokesman that he would consider the matter after an official autopsy report on Lieutenant Plummer.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the possible need for physicals had not been discussed with him in meetings with fire officials.

Because a 1986 federal law requires people in work involving hazardous materials to undergo annual physicals, those city firefighters assigned to the hazardous materials program are given physical exams.

Firefighter stress test results

... ... ... ... ... ... Baltimore Alexandria, Va. National avg.

Average age... ... .. .. .. .. 38... ... ... .35... ... .30-39

Cholesterol... ... ... ... .. 217... ... ... 221... ... .. 220

Recommended national level of cholesterol is 200 or below.

Percentage body fat... ... . 18.7... ... ....23.8... ... ..23.7

Recommended national level of percentage of body fat is 17 or below.

Sit-ups per minute... ... ... .31... ... ... .24... ... ... .27

Push-ups per minute... ... ... 27... ... .. 16.4... ... ... .30

Grip strength... ... ... ... .137... ... ... 117... ... ... 112

Results of Union Memorial Sports Medicine physical stress test given to 1,800 Baltimore firefighters 1986-1988.

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