Brian and Sandy

Brian Demarest and wife, Sandy

Responding to fires is a dangerous, physically grueling job.

Temperatures can soar to 1,000 degrees and the fire can ravage a building, creating unexpected obstacles that must be overcome in seconds. As if maneuvering through an unknown smoke-filled location with limited visibility and oxygen isn’t taxing enough, it must be done while lugging heavy tools of the trade – at least 70 pounds of heat-protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatus, says Brian Demarest of Schenectady, New York. And that, he says, doesn’t count axes and massive hoses.

Under such circumstances, heart health is imperative. Yet it took the loss of a comrade for Brian to take his heart health seriously.

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In 2007, a 42-year-old firefighter in nearby Albany, New York, suffered a fatal heart attack while responding to an emergency call. Brian had never met the firefighter, but the story touched a nerve because Brian was turning 40 that summer.

In the media coverage that followed, Brian learned that heart disease was not only the No. 1 killer of all Americans – claiming more lives than all forms of cancer combined – but it was also the leading cause of death for firefighters in the line of duty, occurring either during or after an emergency.

“It wasn’t something I’d ever thought about before,” he said.

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Brian (right) and colleagues preparing for the run outside their fire station.

Brian (right) and colleagues training outside their fire station.

Over the next few weeks, Brian began hearing more about the risks of heart attack among firefighters from his own fire chief and industry publications. He decided to do what he could to reduce his own risk factors by improving his cardiovascular health.

Requirements for firefighters vary by jurisdiction, but for Brian, physical fitness testing ended once the initial probationary period was completed. In its place were annual wellness exams that didn’t include a fitness component.

Brian – who lives in Rotterdam, New York, with his wife, Sandy, and four daughters – had always kept himself in shape, but didn’t start running until he was 36.

“Instead of becoming a statistic, I wanted to lead by example,” he said.

In 2010, he launched Run 4 Life, a community 5K event to motivate his fellow firefighters to maintain their fitness level and raise awareness about the risk of heart attack in the line of duty.

Teams representing local fire departments compete for a fire-emitting helmet trophy, which is awarded to the fastest team. The event attracted 240 runners the first year, and continues to grow.

Fire-emitting helmet trophy

The 2014 event drew around 800 runners and walkers. He added a specially categories for firefighters weighing at least 225 pounds, called the “Recliner to 5K Challenge.”

The race benefits the American Heart Association, having generated more than $33,000.

“By donating the money we raise to the American Heart Association, we can help fund their research to fight heart disease in everyone,” Brian said.

The event is a big draw for local firefighters and is gaining traction among non-firefighters too.

“It gets larger every year,” Brian said. “People who would never run any 5K step up for this event.”

Brian says the focus on heart health is especially important for firefighters, who rely upon their cardiovascular health when responding to emergencies.

“My mantra is this: I’m running for your life, but the life I save may just be my own,” he said.

Starting line of the 2014 Run 4 Your Life

Starting line of the 2014 Run 4 Your Life

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 Photos courtesy of Brian Demarest and Kathy McCarthy

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Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell?

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

Previous “Stories from the Heart” include:

‘A Stroke of Creativity’

Mother of 8 who collapsed in church warns others: ‘Heart disease doesn’t look like anything’

4 heart attacks, 5-way bypass, 35 stents – and that’s only part of this survivor’s story