By Mike Masterson, Chief of Police, Boise, Idaho, Police Department
hen leaders in law enforcement think of officer safety, issues like driving, firearms, and defensive tactics come to mind. Yet, a new initiative by the Boise (Idaho) Police Department (BPD) demonstrates the need for life-saving programs to take a much more personalized approach and consider personal health an element of officer safety, particularly heart disease.
Boise police officers are now part of a five-year Coronary Artery Disease Risk Assessment Screening Research Study conducted by Dr. Rob Hilvers, Dr. Steve Writer, and Dr. Pennie Seibert. The program originally included only firefighters, but was expanded in 2013 to include two Boise area police departments—and it’s already making a difference.
During the first weeks of the study, a 39-year-old BPD officer was identified as having major arterial blockage in the heart, which was discovered during the annual exercise cardiac stress testing (continuous EKG while running on a treadmill) that was made available to all officers at no cost as part of the study. The discovery led to immediate bypass surgery to repair the arteries, which were estimated to be 80 and 95 percent blocked. A month later, a second officer in his early 40s, prompted to take the cardiac stress test by his coworker’s experience, found he had a similar condition. One simple test saved two lives in one month in a police agency of 300 sworn officers. Other tests in the study have proven benefits, as well—just a few weeks ago, an officer learned of a “hole” in his heart through the calcium screen and further medical tests are being conducted.
Education, nutrition, exercise, and healthy lifestyle choices are just as important for officer safety as tactical and firearms training. Still, programs that emphasize the need for wellness and a healthy lifestyle have gone by the wayside in many departments. It is encouraging, however, that the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has taken note of the large number of officers dying of heart disease and is reviving discussion on the issue.
Bart Johnson, Executive Director of the IACP, said recently of officers with heart disease, “The number does look dramatic,” and “This has been on our radar screen for a while now.”1
Johnson said that the IACP has been meeting in recent months with representatives of the health care company Johnson & Johnson. According to Johnson, the meetings are aimed at developing a more strategic approach to officer wellness as part of IACP’s Center for Officer Safety and Wellness, which was created last year. That’s both promising and hopeful for the large number of police chiefs who are realizing that safe, effective officers are healthy officers.
In Boise, the Coronary Artery Disease Risk Assessment Screening Research Study took place because the local police and fire unions who manage the health care trust for members have made prevention a primary goal of the health care system. As one of the lead investigators in the study, Dr. Hilvers has a decade of experience as a sports and family medicine specialist with an emphasis on wellness for emergency responders. The purpose of the study is to assess the incidence of coronary artery calcification in firefighters and police officers.
To participate in the study, officers had to fit one of three categories: (1) a female, 45 or older; (2) a male, 35 or older; or (3) a person of any gender and any age diagnosed with diabetes.
The study’s intent is to provide evidence-based annual comprehensive exams, with emphasis on cardiac risk stratification, cancer screening, orthopedic assessment, and behavioral health. Since 2005, cardiac stress testing has been conducted on an age-based protocol (Gerkin/WFI protocol). So far, this study has produced several significant clinical findings, and equally important, is providing year-to-year cardio fitness feedback for all participants (estimated maximal oxygen uptake [VO2 max] and two-minute recovery).
Several years ago, Dr. Hilvers and his colleagues also created a unique “Fire and Police Metabolic Syndrome Score.” Seven important risk factors are tracked to determine the “score”: abdominal circumference, blood pressure, fasting glucose, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, tobacco status, and VO2 max or maximal oxygen uptake. Annual reports allow each individual study participant to see interval progress from year to year, which has proven very beneficial for health awareness, counseling, and goal setting.
In 2013, Dr. Hilvers and his staff started the cardiac study by looking at computed tomography (CT) Coronary Calcium scores at year 0 and year 5. This has already provided new insight to existing atherosclerotic disease, as well as increasing awareness and helping with medical management of traditional heart disease risk factors.
The approximately 200 officers participating in this study receive a coronary artery calcium screening using CT at the Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center Department of Radiology. Following the coronary artery calcium screening, participants are provided with the coronary artery calcium score and any information needed to help them understand this score.
Boise police feel privileged and excited to be a part of this wellness study. An important benefit of participation is allowing individual officers to learn more about coronary artery disease and risk for having a sudden cardiac event. The scores for coronary artery screenings have already facilitated positive lifestyle changes. Most important, a police officer participating in this study will learn whether he or she is at risk for a sudden cardiac event.
This study is a huge step forward for a profession that—in the experience of many veteran officers and police chiefs—has talked about officer wellness for decades but has lacked specific, comprehensive, and measurable steps to promote it. In many agencies, pre-employment physicals today include the same lung capacity, joint mobility, and hearing tests that were required 30 years ago.
Within the Boise Police Department, the experiences of the three young officers whose lives were saved because of the study are raising awareness of the complexities of heart disease and its connection to the unique stresses experienced by those working in law enforcement. Sharing these experiences as well as promoting the work of the IACP Center for Officer Safety and Wellness will assist future police leaders in shaping the preferred future that will enable not just a more effective police agency, but greater longevity and a higher quality of life for first responders. ♦
1Kevin Johnson, “Fatal Heart Attacks among Law Enforcement Officers Have Been Mounting, Many Striking Victims Younger than 50 Years Old, Prompting Plans for Wellness Initiatives,” USA TODAY, July 29, 2013, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/07/28/heart-attack-law-enforcement-officers-deaths/2586077 (accessed December 3, 2013).
Please cite as:
Mike Masterson, “Getting to the “Heart” of Officer Safety,” Officer Safety Corner, The Police Chief 81 (January 2014): 10–11.