CHERRY HILL Camden County firefighters are getting help fighting what can be one of their biggest risks on the job: their own health.
Cardiac disease is the number one killer among firefighters over 35, and 44 percent of all deaths in the line of duty are from sudden cardiac arrest, statistics show.
Those numbers were behind a new health screening program, "Helping Heroes," launched Friday by the county freeholder board and Cooper University Health Care.
"We want to change those statistics," said Louis Bezich, Cooper's chief of staff. "We want to make sure the first responders have a good and long life."
This year, there have been 87 firefighter deaths nationwide, and one-fourth were cardiac-related, officials said. Obesity, while epidemic among all Americans, is more prevalent among first responders.
Statistics were not available on cardiac deaths among firefighters in South Jersey. But officials said they welcomed the program, which will make health screenings more accessible and affordable.
"They need to be physically fit," said Lindenwold Fire Chief Mike Nolan of his 60-member volunteer department. "It's like early detection."
About 2,800 firefighters and emergency medical technicians or EMTs from across the county will be eligible for comprehensive physical exams through the program. Nearby counties have expressed interest in replicating the program.
To eliminate barriers that may keep some from getting exams, the screenings will be conducted at their fire stations, or can be scheduled at a doctor's office at their convenience.
"Our goal really is to find illness early," said Daniel Hyman, head of internal medicine at Cooper and the medical director for the Helping Heroes program. "We'll do nights. We'll do weekends."
Because 75 percent of emergency responders in the country have been diagnosed with hypertension or early signs of it, the program especially wants to identify those with cardiovascular or other potentially life-threatening diseases.
"It's not the smoke, fire, or flames that kills firefighters," Nolan said. "For most of them, it's cardiac arrest."
The National Fire Protection Association recommends that firefighters and first responders have an annual exam but officials say some don't, either because they don't have health insurance or they don't have time for appointments.
The exams will cost $375 for the estimated 15 percent of firefighters without insurance. Some fire departments have said that they will pick up the tab.
Firefighting can be physically demanding, with firefighters typically carrying up to 70 pounds of equipment to a fire scene.
"Physical conditioning and physical well-being are huge," said Clementon Fire Chief Randy Freiling, president of the Camden County Fire Chiefs' and Fire Officers' Association. "It's getting more and more challenging."
The program is expected to begin early next year and may be extended to other first responders such as police, said Freeholder Scot McCray.
"Every day the men and women who protect our families and homes put themselves at great risk to ensure our safety," McCray said. "This new program is the least we can do to help those heroes."