What agencies can do to lower cardiovascular disease risks for first responders
There are steps leaders can take to help personnel be healthier
The CDC reported approximately 697,000 deaths from heart disease in 2021 in the United States, making it the nation’s leading cause of death.
A 2014 study found police officers may face a risk of cardiac death up to 70 times normal when involved in stressful situations. Even during training officers can face 25 times the risk of cardiac death as they do during more routine duties.
Law enforcement agencies can take the following steps to help their personnel develop and maintain healthier cardiovascular habits.
Provide department heart screenings
Many heart conditions can be detected by simple screening, preventing catastrophic outcomes. Unlike cardiac arrest, which is an electrical issue, heart attacks, or myocardial infarctions, don’t just happen. A blockage builds up over time, restricting blood flow to sections of the heart. Conditions like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart), genetic defects, valve issues and even electrical complications can be detected with simple heart screenings, preventing major medical incidents and early deaths.
Agencies should sponsor heart screenings every 1–2 years for their officers. This would not only save lives but prevent expensive worker’s compensation payouts from on-duty cardiac complications. It is considerably less expensive to get officers screened and prevent major cardiac issues than pay overtime for officers out on medical leave or a deceased officer’s benefits. There are many mobile heart screening programs that go from location to location, conducting EKGs, ultrasounds and bloodwork for clients.
Promote good sleep
A good night’s sleep is the absolute best thing first responders can do for their overall health. Police agencies should establish sleeping quarters at their departments and substations for officers suffering from on-shift fatigue. Officers who live long distances from their department could sleep at the station before training and court, instead of losing sleep time from long commutes.
If your agency does not have mandatory sleep policies that prevent officers from working off-duty events/moonlighting between regular shifts without adequate time to sleep, you are putting your officers at risk. Help protect your men and women from burnout by enforcing sleep policies. Sleep deprivation alters judgment and reflexes and delays how officers respond to situations. It can lead to poor decisions and get people hurt.
Police1 resource: How supervisors can identify signs of police officer fatigue
Offer physical fitness incentives
Maintaining a healthy body weight and working out can reduce the risk of heart disease. Offering incentives like paid time off, comp time, merit awards or uniform ribbons to officers at quarterly or biannual fitness evaluations do wonders to motivate good heart health and overall morale. Some officers won’t prioritize their health, but all first responders like time off and extra pay.
Make sure your agency offers on-shift workout capabilities with paid time to work out before, on, or after shift. If your department does not have workout equipment, check with your fire/EMS counterparts to see if your officers can work out at their facilities. Talk to community centers, such as a local 24-hour gym. Ask about enrolling your officers or receiving possible discounts. Many officers will gladly work out for up to an hour on their shift.
Police1 resource: Key components of a successful officer wellness program
Lead by example
Don’t be one of those supervisors or training officers with the “do as I say, not as I do” leadership style. When younger officers see their senior officers prioritizing their physical fitness, they take notice. Younger officers want to be a part of organizations that put their officers first.
Invite the rookie to work out with you. Go for a bike ride. Play racquetball. Do a 5K. Talk regularly about good sleeping habits and check in on your officers to ensure they take it seriously. If your officers appear sluggish and are constantly slamming energy drinks, pull them aside. Offer support for stress management and coaching on healthy coping mechanisms and resources. Take care of your own heart health.
Help those you serve to develop a better understanding of the toll this job takes on our health and well-being. This job is a marathon, not a sprint. Help coach your subordinates and fellow officers for the long haul.
Police1 resource: Building an officer wellness culture