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Superior firefighters boost heart health

Left to right, exercise physiologist Ashley Coombe and respiratory therapist Laurie Zappa monitor Superior firefighter Camron Vollbrecht Tuesday during a stress test at St. Luke’s Lakeview Building. The Superior Fire Department has teamed up with the St. Luke’s Regional Heart & Vascular Center for a new heart health initiative. Maria Lockwood

Wired to monitors and dripping sweat, Camron Vollbrecht pedaled for 16 minutes Tuesday in a stress lab at St. Luke's Regional Heart & Vascular Center. Upbeat music played softly, including one tune that caught his attention.

"Is that 'Frozen?'" Vollbrecht asked through the mask used to check his oxygen and carbon dioxide output. "Great music."

He's one of 24 members of the Superior Fire Department taking an extra step toward wellness this spring.

"We work out; we do a difficult job," said Vollbrecht, 42. "Heart attack is the No. 1 killer of firefighters. I think this is very important for us. I think every firefighter should go through this, especially someone over 40 like me."

As part of a new initiative, firefighters will undergo stress tests and chest x-rays. They'll meet with cardiologist Dr. Disha Mookherjee and discuss cancer screening.

"Right now cancers are a big issue with firefighters," said Vollbrecht, a driver with the department and member of the wellness committee. "We're discovering more and more that the stuff that we go into is giving us cancer, and we get cancer at much higher rates, especially specific cancers, than the general public, and younger."

The voluntary preventative care has sparked enthusiasm and a 100 percent participation rate.

"It's created a lot of conversation and a little bit of competition," said Fire Chief Steve Panger.

While prior participants managed to pedal up to a resistance level of 280, Vollbrecht broke the record Tuesday with a 340.

"It's different for every person," Mookherjee said. "We go to your maximum stress level."

The goal is to get the patient to at least 85 percent of their maximum heart rate, which is based on age. During his 16 minutes on the bike, Vollbrecht topped his max of 178.

Mookherjee said their typical stress lab patients are those who are really sick checking if they need heart transplants and high-level professional athletes trying to increase their fitness level. The firefighters add a third demographic.

"It's been a joy meeting all of them, it really has been," Mookherjee said. "It's nice seeing people who are excited about being healthy and taking care of their bodies."

Firefighters go through a stress test when they're hired, Vollbrecht said. But it's been nearly 12 years since his last one.

Funded by a FEMA grant, the new program provides a heart health baseline for members of the department. The first half — older firefighters and those who have a family history of cardiac issues — are being tested this spring. The others will get their baseline test in a few years.

Panger said the department plans to repeat testing every five years. He said the $40,000 FEMA grant will also pay for two firefighters to attend a peer fitness trainer program.

"The great thing about developing the program with St. Luke's is we have consistency working with Dr. Mookherjee and her team," Panger said.

The health care team has been invited to take part in the Superior Fire Department's annual Fire Ops event next month, to see what the job is really like.

"When you think of athletes, professional athletes, they're 30 and under," Vollbrecht said. "As firefighters, we're expected to do this job until our mid-50s. And the physicalness of the job, I played college sports and I do things on this job that are harder than things I ever did playing football or running track."

The testing initiative is a way to encourage better heart health for firefighters and change the culture.

"You can't take away all risk," Panger said. "You can manage some risk."

It joins ongoing wellness efforts — access to workout equipment and the establishment of a time during the day to work out.

"We need to keep our firefighters healthy," Mookherjee said. "If they have to carry a human being out of a burning building, you don't want them collapsing. Their safety ensures our safety."

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