Health and safety only get an official week in June, but this month typically becomes the de facto safety month in the fire service. Let’s make this the month we usher in a yearly call to action on what’s really ailing, injuring, and killing firefighters. Stand-downs notwithstanding, we tend to focus on the “easy” stuff like the inherent danger of structure fires and the myriad ways to lose your life in one. This is because of the comfort level we find while searching for the faults routinely discovered in the external causes of firefighter injury and death. New policies, procedures, equipment, and practices typically emerge once we’re done with the after-action review process and, unfortunately, after looking for the human error factor in the complex system we call the fire department. What’s not easy to focus on is the problem right in front of our faces: how we’re really managing the principle causes of firefighter injury and death – and not just at incident scenes. I’m talking about our entire day at work, since the rest of what we do during the day and how we treat our bodies are not mutually exclusive to how we treat the fireground.
It’s time to look internally at the causes of firefighter injury and death, as we’ve apparently made tremendous strides with fireground safety and control measures. As I write this, FirefighterNation Editor Bill Carey is publishing a great post on the fact that we have not lost a firefighter who was actively involved in fighting fire in a structure fire for more than six months – an amazing metric we should all be proud of, right? I don’t want to jinx our great fortune, but I will take liberties with taking us out of our comfort zone of fireground fault and related control measures to take a second and wipe our face pieces off and see a clearer view of where we stand.
It’s common knowledge that firefighters are more susceptible than the general population to cancer and injury. We are still losing roughly the same numbers of firefighters each year to the other “stuff” – our health and wellness-related causal factors. It’s death from cardiovascular and chemical exposure – heart attacks and cancer. Although these are the major categories we can group the lion’s share of our line-of-duty death (LODD) numbers into, we’re finding their control measures coming in fits and starts. Perhaps tackling these complicated matters is difficult because of their complexity in scope and practice. We’re not doctors, orthopedists, industrial hygienists, or pathologists, but guess what? We’re finally listening to them and inviting them in to conduct research on what is injuring and killing firefighters. Check out the “Cardiovascular and Chemical Exposure Risks in Modern Firefighting” study underway by Underwriters Laboratories, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the Illinois Fire Service Institute, and Skidmore College. This should take us out of our comfort zone and make us realize the true pathophysiological and carcinogen risks to firefighters.
We’ve correlated the thermodynamics associated with fire behavior and our conventional firefighting operations, and now we’re able to make similar correlations with our occupational lifestyles and exposure. Let’s take time to read this study’s interim report and make a few more correlations this month in FireRescue. We start with Jordan Ponder’s seminal statement that we’re 14.5 percent more likely to get injured than the general population. This is not because of fireground misfortunes but rather sprains and strains. How we move around the firehouse and fireground is the contributing factor and, like operational problems, this one can be solved by training.
As we begin to fix our movement, we also have to begin to fix our reactions to stress, trauma, and the hardships of our job. One thing we’d never thought we’d encounter is the potential for eating disorders in the firehouse. Dr. Nicola Davies discusses this very real problem that emerges from trauma, and it’s another one we can’t ignore. And we also can’t ignore doctor visits and the elephant risk in the room: cancer. Billy Goldfeder brings us Chief Ron Kanterman’s incredible story of his cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery and the lesson we should all take away from his experience. Finally, are you able to raise your hand if asked if you know a firefighter who has committed suicide? Brandon Dreiman will tell you that you’re not alone and why the current state of firefighter suicide is getting worse – and what we need to do about it.
If we take this month to wipe our face pieces and get a clearer view and a handle on the other “stuff” that makes up the lion’s share of LODDs, we’re going to start reducing this yearly number – and the numbers we’re losing in general. The answers are in front of us, are available to us, and transcend just showering after every fire; it takes a marked change in our lifestyles and getting the help that we need. It also takes understanding that we may have to stop blaming the fireground as much and take a closer look at ourselves. We deserve it.