There is a running joke in our office about me being the queen of the wireless sensor story. There is truth to that. I have written about sensor technology that measures traffic flow and road conditions in order to keep motorists safer. I have written about technologies that predict environmental events—such as volcanic eruptions—far earlier than ever before, so that public-safety officials can get more people out of harm’s way.

And, I’ve written about systems worn by firefighters that monitor their vital signs and body functions. I have both personal and professional interest in such systems.

I received a scary call last weekend from my mom, who winters in Florida. She told me to relax, but that she was at the emergency room. My dad was sick and the doctors were running tests. I was used to calls that said dad had been rushed to the emergency room. My first thought was, “I hope it’s not his heart.”

My dad spent a lifetime as a Chicago firefighter. He loved the job. He felt good about serving the public and did it humbly, without fanfare. He wouldn’t change a thing—even though the job he loved likely gave him a bad heart.

Heart problems and firefighting seem to go hand-in-hand. In fact, heart disease kills more on-duty firefighters than anything else—over the past 30 years 45% of on-duty deaths were connected to heart disease—and a 2007 Harvard study showed a direct connection to the fireground.

Harvard researcher Stefanos N. Kales analyzed data on all firefighter deaths between 1994 and 2004, except those linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He also looked at how firefighters spend their time. He found that firefighters are significantly more likely to die of stress-related heart problems when putting out a fire—or when engaged in firefighter training—than when they are performing nonemergency duties.

Clearly, firefighting is a physically stressful occupation. Every time an alarm rang, my dad’s adrenaline rushed and his heart furiously pumped blood. He ran up skyscrapers, carried people out of homes, in the process enduring searing heat and suffocating smoke—all while carrying 100 pounds of equipment on his back. We constantly worry about the call we inevitably will get—the one that tells us his ticker just stopped ticking. The years of stress have taken an immeasurable toll his body and—frankly—he’s simply worn out.

I think often about all of the firefighters like my dad who gave their long-term health to the job—and who are now paying the consequences during what’s supposed to be the best years of their lives. And I wonder whether things would be better for my father now if some of the sensor technologies that are helping to keep firefighters safer and healthier today had been available in his day.

Queen of the sensor story—there are worse monikers.

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