Md. Firefighters Wrestle With Issue of On-Job Injuries

Aug. 02--Firefighters not only battle fires every day, they also fight against injury despite the health risks of their job.

County firefighters reported 52 on-the-job injuries in January through June, according to Capt. Kevin Fox, Division of Fire and Rescue Services spokesman. Sixty-three injuries were reported in the first half of 2013, according to the division's website.

"It's the nature of the job -- injuries are going to occur," said Lt. Jeff Shippey, of the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services.

An estimated 69,400 firefighters were injured in 2012 nationwide, according to survey results collected by the National Fire Protection Association, the lowest yearly rate since the association began collecting data in 1981.

For Frederick County firefighters, sprains and strains topped the list of most common injuries, with 16 reported injuries in January through July 2014. Slips and falls followed with 12 reported incidents. Eight medical events were reported, which includes cardiac arrests and heat exhaustion, Fox said.

Sprains and strains are more common in the fire service because firefighters lift heavy equipment and perform strenuous work as a regular part of their job, Fox said.

"We don't have the opportunity to do much stretching or actual preparatory activity before we do the action," Fox said. "We may be thrust into action on a call."

Some injuries happen by accident. Shippey recently hurt his right knee while responding to a town house fire July 11 on Drawbridge Court, putting him on rest for two weeks. He was surveying the house when the engine's driver yanked the fire hose taut, tripping Shippey.

"(It) tripped me, flipped me up in the air and onto my right knee," he said.

Shippey continued working but soon realized he was having pain in his right leg. Following protocol, Shippey said he reported the injury to a supervisor and was taken to Frederick Memorial Hospital by ambulance.

"If somebody is injured on the fire ground, they don't have much of a choice," Shippey said, noting that firefighters are taken to the hospital for all kinds of injuries.

After filing paperwork and receiving X-ray scans, doctors said Shippey had a bruise to his right kneecap and some muscle damage. He was prescribed two weeks of rest, meaning he could no longer ride firetrucks or go to fire scenes.

"Once a firefighter is off duty, whatever the recuperation time is, is what they do," he said.

While Shippey had a two-week vacation scheduled right before his injury, most career firefighters perform "light duty" until they are cleared by Corporate Occupational Health Solutions to begin working again. "Light duty" consists mainly of office work and assisting fire chiefs with paperwork, he said.

"People don't like light duty," Shippey said, laughing. "They don't want to sit in an office all day."

But it allows career firefighters to continue working without using up their sick leave, Shippey said. For injured volunteer firefighters, many stop volunteering until they are healed and are given a letter if the injury impedes with their day occupation.

Only nine of the county's 52 reported injuries were to volunteer firefighters, according to Fox. This differs greatly from national data, which showed volunteer firefighters were more likely to be injured at a fire scene than all other firefighters in 2010-12, according to a National Fire Protection Association report.

Luckily, volunteer and career firefighters do not pay out of pocket for their on-the-job injuries. Instead, workers' compensation covers hospital bills and lost wages incurred as a result of the injury, said Paul Brunner, who works with workers' compensation in Frederick County government.

Better equipment and technology has helped firefighters better protect themselves from injury. During his first few years in the fire service, Shippey said firefighters didn't wear as much protective gear, exposing them to smoke and carcinogens.

"We didn't know, we weren't educated on the dangers back then," he said.

But the biggest cause of death for firefighters nationwide continues to be heart attacks from stress and overexertion. Forty-five out of 81 on-duty firefighter fatalities in the U.S. were caused by stress or overexertion in 2012, with heart attacks topping the list at 39, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

"I've been doing this for 30 years, and it doesn't really get any easier," Shippey said. "You're woken up in the middle of the night (for a call), and your heart is already racing."

Shippey said he has suffered only four injuries throughout his 30 years of fire service, including his recent knee injury.

"I think I'm just clumsy," Shippey said, laughing.

To prevent injuries and identify possible debilitating health conditions, career and volunteer firefighters undergo physical tests every couple of years depending on their age to assess their health, Fox said.

"We have caught cardiac issues (during the test), and it's been more of a lifesaving event," said John Neary, president of the Career Fire Fighters Association of Frederick County.

Fox said he did not know of any Frederick County firefighters who recently died due to an on-the-job injury.

Follow Paige Jones on Twitter: @paigeleejones.

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