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Hidden danger: New focus on safety after Billings firefighter suffers on-duty heart attack

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Posted at 7:45 AM, Oct 06, 2022

BILLINGS - There’s a new focus on firefighter safety after a Billings firefighter suffered a heart attack during an adrenaline-packed emergency.

Firefighter Doug Koffler is making a full recovery, but his health scare has prompted leaders in the industry to press for better standards of care.

Koffler remembers the day well. It was March 27 and his crew was dispatched to a house fire on the Billings South Side.

“When we got here, we were assigned to search for a third victim,” he said.

He remembers the interior of the home feeling incredibly hot.

“When we came out, I felt extremely hot,” he said. “And I thought it was just from the exertion of the workload that we did.”

But it turns out Koffler was having a heart attack, and at first he didn’t even believe himself that something was wrong, taking his pulse not once but twice in the process.

“And as they put the monitor on me, I could see that I actually was having a heart attack,” he said.

Koffler has been in the fire industry for 22 years and would say he’s in great physical health. But new research is suggesting there are more hidden dangers that lurk on duty.

We already know firefighters are subject to carcinogens through repeated exposure to fire and smoke, leading to cancer deaths.

However, 45 percent of firefighter on-duty deaths are due to cardiovascular events.

“We're starting to see the toll it takes on us,” said Billings Union President Cameron Abell. “We're starting to learn that the science is catching up to what we kind of felt forever.”

He says it’s because the harsh truth is, a firefighter’s working conditions breed hazards.

“The adrenaline hits,” said Abell. “Cortisol levels go up and just stress goes up.”

The research is drawing a connection between cardiovascular health and the stress of the job.

“We know that we need to be tactical athletes. I mean, this job is a hard job,” said Abell. “Lifting heavy stuff and with a lot of adrenaline in your body, and if you're not physically prepared for that, it takes a toll on you.”

It's why Abell says now there’s a push to raise the standard of routine physical examinations for Billings firefighters

“So our current physical that we get done is a pretty baseline DOD physical,” he said. “Firefighters need to have a lot more, (such as) stress tests, we need chest X-rays, getting blood tests done earlier for other types of cancers that are pretty prevalent in the fire service.”

And in doing so, Koffler can’t help but wonder if all of that could have stopped his heart attack in its tracks.

“Hopefully we can tie some of the hazards that we have been exposed to hopefully some long-term care and maybe even some preventative stuff,” said Koffler.

Abell says the added testing could cost more money in the short term if adopted, but in the long term could also save the lives of firefighters.