Fire-Rescue Service Roundtable: Fire Department Health & Wellness Initiatives

Firehouse Magazine asks fire service leaders to discuss ways to keep firefighters fit and healthy, on and off duty, with the goal of reducing health related fatalities and injuries.


DAVID DANIELS MHRM, MIFireE, CFO, is fire chief/emergency services administrator for the City of Renton, WA. He is international director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Safety, Health & Survival Section and a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA...


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A 10-year study by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) found that about half of the firefighters who died of sudden cardiac arrest, or suffered heart attacks, had a known heart condition. These members should never have been assigned operational duties. Further, 75% had heart conditions that a simple medical test could have detected. Medical exams save lives.

In addition to cardiac-related medical issues, the new hidden killer on the horizon is the rising number of cancer cases. It is rarely listed as a LODD killer, but studies have shown that firefighters have a much higher rate of cancer than the general population. Due to extremely toxic environments that firefighters are exposed to on a routine basis, it is every bit a LODD killer.

The general cause of firefighter cancer is toxic gases in smoke along with particles contained in it. Even the pump operator exposed to drifting smoke is at risk. The preventive measure is to always wear an SCBA. But studies are now revealing that toxins carried in smoke can also be absorbed through the skin.

I believe the future will reveal that we must decontaminate our personal protective equipment (PPE), and tools, after each structural fire in a manner similar to today's hazardous materials operation. The PPE we wear can absorb large amounts of highly contaminated particles that, as the coat dries, become airborne. Coats and pants are carried in enclosed cabs of fire apparatus, thus creating continuous exposure. A post-fire washdown of PPE, and routinely decontaminating the cab, will reduce exposure. The PPE should be cleaned by a commercial laundry on a regular basis. Additionally, a post-fire shower at the fire station immediately after the fire, and a change of clothes, will remove contamination.

Remember, four decades ago, our forefathers didn't believe smoke was a health issue. We now know it is a killer and shortens life expectancy. Two decades ago, we didn't recognize the hazards of blood-related exposure either. Now we know and take measures to prevent exposure and decontaminate EMS equipment, and ourselves, after each medical run. A similar procedure should be applied to smoke exposure.

PADGETT: It is always the cardiac-related issues that kill so many good firefighters year after year. In 2007, heart attacks were the most frequent cause of death, with 52 firefighter deaths. However, it is not always the stereotypical overweight, out-of-shape person that suffers from this medical condition. Many firefighters that appear to be a picture of health can be at risk from high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

My own family has high cholesterol. My wife had a heart attack at the age of 31 and survived. A healthy young female suffering a heart attack is virtually unheard of; however, this revealed to us that our son and daughter both also have extremely high cholesterol and are now currently on cholesterol-lowering drugs. That is why it is so important to take care of yourself and get a yearly physical to identify these types of things. Don't always assume that you are healthy just because you feel well. Check with your primary physician and set up an appointment to have a physical soon.

TIPPETT: The most significant health issue facing firefighters today is cancer. The insidious nature of cancer in the world of firefighters truly makes it our silent killer. What makes the disease so devastating is the years it takes to manifest itself. Many firefighters are past retirement when they are struck so they are essentially not considered casualties. We seem to be making inroads as an industry in pockets for more prolonged use of SCBA, but there are still too many firefighters out there who think little about the long-term consequences of the actions they take today. What we know about the toxic nature of today's combustion products should be a clarion call for us to insist on more stringent attention to cleaning our protective clothing, not wearing turnout gear in station living areas, keeping our gear in gear bags to limit the hazards of offgassing and wearing respiratory protection from entry through overhaul.

Again in 2008, we lost more than 100 firefighters in the line of duty, many due to health-related causes. What must be done on an everyday basis to keep firefighters fit and healthy?