Fire Department workers to undergo health screenings
For the first time, all 1,800 Baltimore fire personnel will undergo departmentwide health tests during a wellness project that officials hope will become a yearly event.

Next week, Professional Health Services vans will begin conducting screenings — including hearing, vision, pulmonary and heart — at five department operations in the city.

The Fire Department will get aggregate data after testing is complete, though individual results will be kept between patients and physicians.

"We will get a good picture of the health of the department in general," said Fire Chief James S. Clack, who will be among the first to undergo the testing. "If there are major issues with our personnel, we will be able to tell."

The newest of the screening vans, which is 71 feet long, parked in City Hall Plaza on Tuesday to show department officials.

The vehicle is soundproof and compartmentalized for privacy, and is equipped with a digital X-ray, an EKG and a centrifuge to expedite blood processing. The facility can handle about six patients an hour, whose assessments will conclude in a conference with a physician.

"This van will not interfere with the functions of the Fire Department," said Bob Pyle, a technician for Professional Health Services, which is headquartered in Havertown, Pa. "If an alarm goes off, the firefighters will go and come back to us."

The leading cause of injuries for firefighters is overexertion, and strain on the job can lead to cardiovascular problems, officials said. Wellness programs could help prevent some of them, they said.

"This will be a valuable tool for each individual to figure out where they are with wellness," Clack said. "And each person will get a health wellness report as well as a prescription for fitness."

Testing begins Monday with the command staff and will continue for about five months, until all employees are screened. The program is funded by grants — $900,000 from the Department of Homeland Security and $200,000 from the city.

A similar program at the Fire Department in Memphis, Tenn., showed a low percentage of personnel with significant health issues, Clack said, though he did not provide a specific figure.

The Baltimore department does not require annual health assessments, but fire officials are in preliminary discussions about making a yearly wellness test mandatory, officials said.

"This is the first time we have ever tried this," said Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman. "It is just an assessment that will give an individual an overall health summary and maybe suggest lifestyle changes. It will actually benefit each member, especially those who don't have an annual health screening."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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