Health and safety are critical to firefighter success

Too often firefighters and emergency medical responders subscribe to the belief that they need to put others first at the expense of their own health and safety. To some extent this is true – we are the ones running into the disaster when others are running out. But what happens if we are not able to serve at our best level? How does this affect those we are trying to protect and our crew members who are counting on us?

In the fire service, the health and safety of one has a direct impact on the wellbeing of many. If an emergency responder has a heart attack on the scene, or is taken out of commission due to cancer, or flips a vehicle because of reckless driving, the entire crew is affected by the consequences. In this way, our individual choices when it comes to health and safety are directly linked to the overall success of the mission and the safety of our crew.

One of the priorities of the National Volunteer Fire Council is for all personnel to serve strong. By this we mean that each individual firefighter, emergency medical provider, or rescue worker should be at their best when performing their duties. Being personally responsible for our health and safety is a critical part of our job. A commitment to health goes hand in hand with our commitment to service.

Some key health and safety issues we are focusing on are as follows:

Heart Health

Studies have shown that emergency responders are at greater risk for heart attack. In the U.S., heart attack accounts for about half of all on-duty firefighter deaths each year. Adding to the problem is that many firefighters have poor sleep habits, aren’t physically prepared for the job, and eat an unhealthy diet. Functional fitness, good nutrition, weight management, and controlling risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol are all important components of being a heart-healthy firefighter.

Cancer

Research has found that firefighters contract cancer at higher rates than the general population. Toxic chemicals are released during fires and other emergencies, which can then be absorbed, ingested, or inhaled into a firefighter’s body. There are many steps firefighters can take to help protect themselves. These include wearing full personal protective equipment and breathing apparatus until the fire is cold and there is no smoke and steam; washing your hands after responding and before touching any food; using a cleansing cloth to wipe your face and neck after a fire response and taking a hot shower as soon as possible; decontaminating your personal protective equipment at the fire scene with a hose line and rinsing off your helmet liner and gloves after each use; and washing your gear and hood after each working fire.

Behavioral Health

Mental health is just as important as physical health. Firefighters and rescue personnel regularly experience traumatic situations as part of their job, and this can have a significant impact on their wellbeing. Post traumatic stress disorder, depression, addiction, anxiety, and other mental health concerns are common among emergency responders. If left unaddressed, these issues can have devastating impacts on a person’s ability to perform as a responder, on their personal relationships, and on their overall wellbeing. Suicide is a growing concern in the emergency services. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance has received reports of 226 firefighter and EMT suicides in the U.S. between January 1, 2015 and October 3, 2016. Removing the stigma surrounding behavioral health and creating a department culture where people can reach out and receive help if needed is critical.

Vehicle Safety

Vehicle crashes and struck-by incidents result in emergency responder deaths and injuries every year. Having and enforcing standard operating procedures for safe vehicle operations and traffic incident management can help reduce these threats to responders.

While this is not a comprehensive list of the health and safety challenges emergency personnel face, it does illustrate that our jobs present unique challenges to our health and safety. We need to proactively take care of ourselves as well support each other in these efforts. It is in this way that we can serve strong. After all, a better you equals a better crew.

For more information, go to www.nvfc.org

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Kevin D. Quinn serves as the Chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council. A member of the fire service since 1976, he recently retired as a Deputy Chief of the Union Fire District in South Kingstown, RI, and has returned to where he began – actively responding to fires and alarms with his original Station #3 of the Union Fire District.