PHILADELPHIA -- In his 27 years as a Philadelphia firefighter, Joseph Finley has known quite a few coworkers who've had heart attacks on the job.
He also knows he's not on the healthiest path. Just shy of 6 feet tall, he weighs 265 pounds. He's taking medicine for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
He participated for several years in the annual Battle of the Badges weight-loss contest with police. Last year, he took third place - worth $350 - in another weight-loss challenge. "I've been on a million diets," the ex-Marine admits. "This isn't my first rodeo."
His latest "rodeo" is a 10-week online program developed by a local cardiologist that combines information about heart health, diet, exercise and stress reduction. "I still want to be around for a while," Finley explained.
About 100 of the city's 2,100 firefighters and paramedics, including Commissioner Lloyd Ayres, are trying the new version of Healthy Change of Heart, which Flourtown cardiologist David Becker has been offering in "live" form for 18 years.
On average, he said, participants who paid $300 and went to classes lost 10 pounds and reduced LDL or bad cholesterol by 8 percent and triglycerides by 25 percent to 30 percent. He's using the firefighters to work the bugs out of a new approach that he also hopes to sell. Substituting about 30 minutes a week of short online videos for in-person classes makes it possible to offer the "lifestyle change" program to people like Finley who work unusual hours.
The fire department embraced the idea, allowing Patti Morris, a nutritionist who works in Becker's office, and Erin Silvent, the Change of Heart program coordinator, to visit 62 fire stations. (Morris learned that the four food groups in the fire department are potato chips, soda, Tastykakes and soft pretzels.) The firefighters' union, Local 22 of the International Association of Firefighters, also supports it, but is hoping the test leads to a required wellness and fitness program, something the union has advocated for years.
Initially, Becker's group wanted to help one firehouse after two of its firefighters, Lt. Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney, died during a blaze in Kensington in April. Heart problems had nothing to do with the deaths; a wall collapsed on the two men. But another firefighter, William Gillon, 55, had taken Becker's course and mentioned to the Change of Heart staff that his coworkers needed the kind of help he'd gotten. He was going to too many funerals for peers.
Pretty soon, Silvent and Morris were visiting all the firehouses at night and on weekends.
Firefighters have reason to worry about their hearts. The National Fire Protection Association this year estimated that half of the country's 61 on-duty deaths of firefighters in 2011 were heart-related. The nonprofit group said the United States had 1.1 million U.S. firefighters in 2010.
Rich Lewandowski, health plan administrator for Local 22, said a quarter of the people covered by its health plan are being treated for high blood pressure. Six percent have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease and 1.2 percent of active firefighters have congestive heart failure. He said weight problems in the department mirror those in the country as a whole.
While he had no statistics about Philadelphia deaths in the line of duty, he said that bad hearts, not fires, kill most firefighters on the job. He's taken to calling the events where dead firefighters are memorialized with plaques "heart attack ceremonies."
Lewandowski said firefighting is particularly demanding. Firefighters can be jolted out of sleep by lights and bells. They put on 50 pounds of equipment and rush into hot/cold/dangerous situations where they may be breathing toxic chemicals along with smoke. "We're expected to be occupational athletes," he said.
Capt. Kevin O'Mally, who is the department's employee relations officer, said the department has had an influx of younger members in recent years. Firefighters participate in fund-raising runs and bike rides. They run up high-rise steps to raise money for the American Lung Association. They've already had access this year to a couple programs that check their cholesterol level and blood pressure. Some stations are trying to eat healthier, and visiting firefighters are now more likely to bring fruit instead of the traditional doughnuts.
"I think our guys are in much better shape than the general population because of the job we do," O'Mally said, "but it's always good to be in better shape."
He started the program, which is now in its third week for most firefighters, back in August. He's lost 23 pounds.
The Healthy Change of Heart program includes components - biometric testing, e-mail and text reminders, an online presence, stress management techniques, nutrition and exercise information - that are common or growing in wellness programs, which are themselves becoming commonplace, especially in larger companies.
Mercer, a human resources consulting firm, estimates that 72 percent of employers offer wellness programs. About 40 percent of wellness programs have a Web portal, said Renee Frisch, a principal in health care consulting.
Mike Thompson, a principal in PricewaterhouseCoopers' global human resources services practice, said the local program's focus on cardiology is "somewhat distinguishing."
Frisch and Thompson agreed that the evidence that wellness programs reduce medical costs is mixed. However, Thompson said, they may lead to less absenteeism and they convey a positive message to employees. He added that they are a long-term commitment.
"These programs require continual renewal, continual engagement of employees," he said.
Even before the program, Finley had given up trying to eat what his fellow firefighters cooked. On a recent day, he said, they ate sausage and pepper sandwiches - two per man - and big helpings of potato chips. "I just can't eat like that," he said. Instead, he brought a Weight Watchers dinner, some salad, peanuts and an apple.
He had no trouble with the new program's homework in the first week. He was to eat three cups of vegetables and two fruit servings each day. "I eat a lot of vegetables. I eat a lot of fruit," he said. "But I also eat a lot of meat. I eat a lot of bread."
He'll be working on that and on doing the recommended five days a week of aerobic exercising. He likes the videos and said he's already learning new things about his heart. As to whether this program will have better long-term results than the others, he could only say: "We'll see."