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Special Report: What's Killing Our Firefighters?

It's called the 'silent killer' since firefighters often have no warning.

ROCKFORD - When you think about the dangers firefighters face, several things come to mind like flames leaping from buildings with blinding heavy smoke and firefighters rescuing people potentially trapped in inside quickly deteriorating unstable structures.

That was the kind of heart-pounding, life-saving excitement Retired Rockford Fire Captain Mark Asprooth signed up for, until one day his heart almost gave out.

"It was November 29, 2006 and we had a real bad day at the station, a lot stress going, it was the the end of year and we were trying to get everything done," said Asprooth.

It started with a run on the treadmill at the firehouse, something he would do on occasion when he got back from a particularly stressful call.

"I stepped off the treadmill and I felt the chest pains and the pains between my shoulders and left arm and I knew this was a cardiac event."

Capt. Asprooth was having a heart attack, an ailment that kills firefighters in far greater numbers than anything else they experience on the job.  According to the American Heart Association, 45 percent of all on-duty firefighter fatalities are caused by heart disease. Almost 100 firefighters die from it each year, the average age just 50 years-old. Compare that to the general public where the average age for those affected is almost 65 years-old, and it often happens to firefighters with little warning.

"The last year before the heart attack I was sick most of the time, I didn't feel right. I went to the doctor and they couldn't find anything wrong, but I knew something was wrong. Something was telling me that something was going to happen and it did."

Dr. Mazen Hadid, a Cardiologist from Swedish American Hospital, says heart disease is caused by several factors, but more-so in firefighters because of the added stressors which elevate blood pressure. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health also found that many firefighters suffer from enlargement of the heart. Dr. Mazen says that means even the most fit firefighters may be at risk.

"They should watch for earlier signs for decreased ability to do certain stuff. So they may still be able to do a lot of work compared to normal people, but if it's half of what they did last year that's an important thing," said Hadid.

Rockford Fire Chief Derek Bergsten has already implemented policies to help with prevention and awareness.

"All of our fire stations are equipped with exercise equipment and we promote that on and off duty. We have a physical fitness committee that is a collaboration between our union and fire administration that is always finding ways to get the message out," said Bergsten.

Asprooth doesn't regret anything, despite what he's dealing with now. He still has to make frequent trips to his doctor for several heart tests. After 25 years of service, he admits it took a long time to come to grips that he would never find himself on a fire truck again.

"I think I appreciate my family more. I've got grandchildren now, I make sure I take time for them. When my kids were growing up, I was working a lot so I wasn't there, so now I don't miss one thing with my grandkids," said Asprooth.


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