The greatest threats against firefighters are not the flames they battle, but two brutal enemies that attack from within – cancer and PTSD.
On Tuesday, the IAFF issued resolutions promising to promote research and education on both issues.
Union officials noted that the link between firefighting and cancer has been known for some time. And, they admitted women and minorities have not been included in the majority of studies.
“…Today’s fires burn hotter and faster than ever, and more consumer products contain toxic chemicals. The increased use of plastics and other synthetic materials in residential and commercial furnishings, products and construction generate more hazardous vapors and smoke during a fire. Many of these toxic chemicals are carcinogenic. Scientific studies show prolonged exposure to these toxic chemicals is increasing the rate at which firefighters are developing and dying,” according to the IAFF statement.
Currently, 34 states have cancer presumption laws for firefighters, and the IAFF vows to work to get the other states to recognize it as well.
At the IAFF memorial, 59 percent of the firefighters whose names appear on the walls since 2002 died of cancer.
Officials say those numbers are unacceptable, and stressed the need for preventative measures.
The IAFF also is calling attention to PTSD, and the importance of demolishing the stigma attached.
“New information is now known about the emotionaltoll these incidents take on our nation’s professionalfire fighters and paramedics as a result of what they have seen and experienced in the course of protecting the public…”
The report continues:” PTSD is a serious and chronic condition that can ruin the careers of fire fighters and paramedics, destroy families and jeopardize public and firefighter safety…”
About 20 percent of emergency responders suffer from PTSD, they noted.
“Furthermore, according a 2015 Florida State University study, nearly half of the fire fighters surveyed (46.8 percent) have thought about suicide, 19.2 percent had suicide plans and 15.5 percent had made suicide attempts…”
“…In fact, those with PTSD are six times more likely to attempt suicide compared to demographically matched controls.
IAFF officers admitted that many don’t admit anything is wrong or seek help because of stigmas.
“Dan DeGryse, a Chicago fire fighter who has spentmany years with the Chicago Fire Department’s peer support network, known as the Gatekeepers, found after a two-year study on suicide in the fire service that 28 percent of fire fighters believe behavioral health issues might hurt their pride or reputation, worry that information will not remain confidential, or say they do not have or are unaware of services available to address behavioral health issues,” according to the report.
The IAFF is calling for a joint effort to battle the invisible enemies.
“North America’s fire fighters are developing job-related cancers more than ever before and we are now learning that an alarming number in our ranks are struggling under the weight of post-traumatic stress. The time has come for fire departments, elected officials and communities to come together to address these problems…”
Only Oregon and five Canadian provinces have added PTSD and other mental health disorders so the list of occupationally related diseases in first responders for the purpose of workers compensation benefits, authors noted.
The IAFF called on its members to get involved to spread the word on PTSD and cancer.