In the wake of the Arizona wildfires that killed 19 elite firefighters, I put together a video commentary suggesting we say “Thank you” to every firefighter we meet. It’s considered common courtesy to say “Thank you for your service” to those who served or are serving in the armed forces. Why not extend the same courtesy to those who serve on the front lines at home and can find themselves in a life-or-death situation at any moment?
The commentary aired on TV stations across the country and was viewed thousands of times on You Tube. Hundreds reached out to me through social media. Joe Gordon, a firefighter from Camden County, was one of those people. He reminded me that there if we really want to thank out firefighters, there is much more we can do for them. They are willing to save our lives; we can save their lives.
The 19 Arizona firefighters were the most to die in one incident since the 343 who died at Ground Zero on 9/11. But that is just a fraction of the 4,473 firefighters who have died in the line of duty over the past 25 years.
Joe Gordon told me something stunning. “Almost half the on-duty firefighter deaths are caused by heart attacks.” I was skeptical until I found documented evidence in a study done by Harvard researchers. Firefighters have a 300-times greater chance of having a heart attack than anyone else just by showing up to work. They are up to 126 times more likely to die of a heart attack by putting out a fire.
Then I remembered all of the stories I reported over the years and the statistic became all too real. I remember when Philadelphia firefighter James Allen collapsed and died from a heart attack while fighting a fire on a Port Richmond rooftop in 2003; when Darby Township fire police officer Tom Mower died responding to an alarm in 2005; when Ambler Fire Police Captain David Wintz died after fighting the Dow Chemical Fire in May of last year; when West Chester Captain Christopher Good died of a heart attack the day Thanksgiving last year after fighting a house fire in West Goshen. And there are many more.
“It all makes sense,” Gordon explained to me. “These men go long stretches without sleep, without getting to eat, some of the volunteers have other jobs, and then they are thrown into a high adrenaline, stressful, physically exhausting activity in the middle of the night. It’s like someone waking you up at three in the morning and telling you have to play in an NFL game immediately.”
The pro football analogy was not without reason. Gordon and Philadelphia Eagles’ Offensive Lineman Danny Watkins founded the charity All Hands Working to save the lives of those who save lives. Before Watkins learned how to play American Football in college, he was a firefighter in British Columbia, Canada. “If we spend just a fraction of the time and money we spend training athletes on training firefighters, we would save lives and make our communities safer.” Watkins spoke with me on the phone from Texas where he going through some of that training to get ready for the 2013 season. “It’s not just working out, it’s getting enough sleep, eating right, even simple hydration.”
Watkins and Gordon are working with Cybex, a fitness equipment company used by the NFL, that come up with exercise equipment geared specifically for firefighters and the tasks they are required to perform on the job, breaching doors, poking holes in walls an ceilings, etc. The problem is 70% of the fire departments in America are run by volunteers and can’t afford the equipment. That’s where All Hands Working comes in.
The charity runs fundraisers to pay for equipment and training. There is one Sat., July 13, in West Chester at the Goodwill Fire Company in honor of Captain Good, who died of a heart attack at 36. It’s a community block party with music, food and games. Danny Watkins can’t make it, but former Eagles All Pro lineman Tra Thomas will be there along with other celebrities. And how about you? At any moment firefighters could be called to save the life of you or your family, won’t you give a moment for them?