FREEPORT — With 14 electronic sensors stuck to his chest and back, Darrel Fournier walked quickly Tuesday on the treadmill. On a nearby computer screen, Dr. Lowell Gerber monitored the heart rate, and watched for an electrical heart abnormality in Fournier, Freeport’s fire chief, that could put him at risk of abrupt heart failure.

Within five minutes, Gerber had the preliminary results.

Flames and smoke would seem to be the biggest hazard for those who respond to fires. But sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death among on-duty firefighters, blamed for four of 10 fatalities from 2003 to 2008, according to the National Fire Prevention Association.

Some of the deaths could be avoided, with a piece of test equipment that can help detect the small heartbeat irregularities that indicate a heightened risk for heart trouble. Freeport’s is the first fire department in Maine to be screened with the equipment.

Fournier, president of the New England Fire Chiefs Association, hopes the pilot program eventually can be expanded statewide. That would make Maine the first state to use the technology to screen firefighters for risk factors associated with sudden cardiac arrest.

The diagnostic heart test is called Microvolt T-Wave Alternans. It serves as a marker of cardiac instability and an elevated risk of sudden cardiac death. It was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has been available for seven years. This year, Cambridge Heart Inc. of Tewksbury, Mass., won approval to market a module that will make the technology more widely available to doctors.

The idea of using the diagnostic test to screen firefighters came after Gerber, who opened a cardiology practice in Freeport less than two years ago, met Fournier, who told him about the particular risk faced by firefighters.

Age, physical fitness, stress and medical conditions can put firefighters at a higher risk for sudden cardiac arrest or a heart attack. Adding to the threat is intense heat, which can raise the body temperature to dangerous levels. Firefighters are typically screened for physical fitness, but rarely for the condition of their heart.

Gerber, who has an interest in preventive cardiology, saw an opportunity to examine firefighters as a way to explore heart risks in the wider population, such as obesity and diabetes.

“They are a reflection of what’s going on with society,” Gerber said.

With Fournier on the treadmill, Gerber increased the speed and incline until he had raised Fournier’s heart rate and captured the results. He found Fournier’s risk of sudden cardiac death to be low, and proceeded to other tests.

“I feel wonderful about that,” Fournier said. “I’m very pleased with that result.”

Fournier, who is 54, knows that undiagnosed heart conditions can kill. A member of the Freeport force who was 53 died last year of a heart attack while off duty.

Freeport has 65 volunteer firefighters and six full-time staffers. Nine are being tested in the pilot program.

If it’s successful, Gerber and Fournier hope it can become a national model.

Firefighters, Gerber noted, do more than fight fires these days. They often are emergency medical personnel, and first responders to events including terrorism.

“We really need to keep these people healthy and functional,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]