Is Your Firehouse Making You Sick?

July 1, 2007
Many Fire Stations Suffer From "Sick Building Syndrome

During a hectic shift, we often seek the comfort and safety of our firehouses for much-needed rest. Ironically, many of our firehouses are dangerous environments that suffer from an environmental condition called "sick building syndrome." Literally, a "sick firehouse" can make you ill because it has become a breeding ground for contagions, including dangerous bacteria, viruses and toxic mold.

"Sick firehouses" are becoming more prevalent. As firehouses age, they are more likely to become cesspools of contagious and infectious diseases. This directly affects firefighter health and safety, causing firefighters to become sick more frequently. Consequently, sick-time expenses are proliferating, which puts greater pressure on tight departmental budgets.

Because we are exposed to patients on a daily basis who call 911 for assistance, we are more likely to become infected with the common cold and flu. These illnesses may not seem so "dangerous" to us; after all, we get sick for a few days and eventually get over it, right? It's just part of the job. Now replace the words "cold" and "flu" with "Hepatitis C," "MRSA" or "TB," and you become a bit more focused. Don't think for a second that we aren't bringing dangerous viruses and bacteria back into our bunk rooms after running calls. The word "flu" is derived from "influenza." Without a doubt, influenza, depending on its strain, can kill you. The bird flu virus is technically known as the "avian influenza H5N1 virus." Most medical experts will tell you that it isn't a matter of "if" we'll be subjected to the bird flu virus in the United States, but "when." It is only a matter of time. And we need to get ready to effectively respond to this killer virus.

How many times have you been sitting in a fire station when a co-worker arrives coughing and sneezing? A countdown clock starts in your head as you estimate how long it will be until the flu bug has a hold of you. We all live and work in such close quarters that it is inevitable that we pass contagions on to each other. The worst part is that just about the time you start to get over being sick, someone else at your station comes down with a cold or flu and so begins the never-ending cycle of work-hazard illnesses. Dangerous bacteria and viruses that can lead to deadly infections don't stay at the station when our shift is done. We are unnecessarily exposing our loved ones to the same contagions we have to fight at work. We unwittingly take them home with us.

Mold and mildew in firehouses is a major problem as well. Ed McMahon, a major supporter of firefighters who has stood beside us in working tirelessly for "Jerry's Kids" over the past four decades, nearly died five years ago because his home was infested with toxic mold. I've been fortunate to meet Ed, and he has made it clear to me that the longer you are exposed to toxic mold and mildew, the more likely you are to develop deadly respiratory problems, sinus problems and allergy-type symptoms. The quality of your indoor environment has a direct impact on your quality of work. If you are constantly feeling sick and tired, do you really think you are going to be operating at your best all the time?

Fire departments today are asked to do more with less. Employees who are constantly using sick time are inevitably going to cause a strain on already-minimal staffing levels. It doesn't make sense to expose firefighters to contagions that continually cause them to be ill by not taking care of the "sick" stations in which they spend a large portion of their lives. Assuring that these "sick" firehouses are cleaned up will without a doubt improve the health of firefighters, which will automatically lead to a positive effect on fire department budgets and reduce the ever-increasing burden of overtime costs.

Another problem that is resurfacing is the infestation of insects such as bed bugs and dust mites. One of the busiest fire stations in Salt Lake City, UT, recently endured a fight against bed bugs and the bugs won! After several failed attempts and thousands upon thousands of dollars spent, the firefighters had to move out of their station. Carpets had to be replaced, beds and furniture were thrown away and replaced, and exterminators were called in multiple times to try to eradicate the bugs. It is assumed that the bugs were brought into the station after running medical calls to a nearby homeless shelter. What could you be bringing back to your firehouse after a call? Dangerous bacteria and viruses? Absolutely!

The point behind all of this is that we spend much of our lives in these firehouses and our health is at risk. We take what we catch at work back home to our family and friends. We must focus our efforts to "cure" sick firehouses. Revolutionary disinfecting technologies like Dri-Mist microparticle applications are available. Stricter cleaning regimens must be followed. We must protect our health on the job so we can enjoy our time off with our loved ones without the fear of bringing sickness home to our families.

JASON SCHNEIDER is a firefighter/paramedic and hazardous materials technician with Broward County, FL, Fire & Rescue. He is also involved in firefighter health and safety, specifically in regard to infection control, cross contamination, and vehicle and room sterilization.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!