By Jim Dundas, Ret. Battalion Chief, IPSA Board Member and IPSA Memorial Committee Chair
The United States observes Fire Prevention Week beginning Sunday, October 7 - Saturday, October 13, 2018. This national week is a time to reflect on the firefighters who put their lives on the line to protect our communities.
A week in October in which the 9th calendar day occurs commemorating the Great Chicago Fire of 1922. The purpose of FPW is to champion fire prevention and control practices. The theme for this year’s FPW, as dedicated by the National Fire Protection Association is “Look, Listen, Learn, Be aware. Fire can happen anywhere.™”
FPW is kicked off by the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial service at the National Fire Academy in Emmetsburg, Maryland – the site of the National Emergency Training Center and the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. Each year, a remembrance service is held in which the names of fallen firefighters and fire-based emergency medical personnel are added to the memorial wall. Family members, agencies and friends also sponsor bricks engraved with the names of the fallen all along the courtyard walkways.
When I was on the job, firefighting was neck and neck with mining as the most hazardous of occupations in the U.S. The fire profession has accomplished a lot in decreasing the number of
line of duty deaths in the operational environmen, partly due to enhanced safety procedures and improved protective equipment, the incidence of death by cancer and cardiovascular disease is increasing exponentially. Firefighters suffer cardiovascular and cancer deaths at a far greater rate than the general population. It is estimated that firefighter cancer deaths exceed the general population by 14 percent.
There has also been recent speculation that firefighters’ protective clothing contains carcinogenic materials. In ongoing research, Notre Dame University in their experimental nuclear physics laboratory, tested swatches of turnout clothing that had not yet been used. They found a significance presence of fluorine in the material, a known carcinogenic. "The results were phenomenal—off the scale in parts per million of fluorine in all but one of the samples,’ Peaslee said. ‘Everything was just loaded with fluorine.’ Following the initial tests, Peaslee is leading a study of new and used turnout and personal protective gear issued throughout the 2000s, including jackets, pants and undershirts—all of which are either new or have been in service for more than a decade.”
Many fire departments are adopting practices in which they supply firefighters with two sets of protective clothing, require that exposed personnel be decontaminated prior to leaving the scene, that the protective ensemble by washed after every fire, be professionally cleaned periodically or if specific contamination occurs, and that personnel shower prior to returning to service. These are positive practices to protect fire personnel from unnecessary exposure.
Review of 2017 LODDs
In calendar year 2017, 113 firefighters and fire medics died in the line of duty according to the USFA and another 103 firefighters died by suicide according to a report in USA Today.
Cancer and CVD: The U.S. government has approved and created the firefighter cancer registry and many states have adopted presumptive legislation that considers cancer and cardiorespiratory diseases to be job related. As reported by the U.S. Fire Administration, 68 of those LODDs were the result of occupational related diseases, namely cancer and CVD/respiratory disease. This is a staggering 60 percent of all firefighter and fire medic line of duty deaths in 2017 were from job related illnesses.
“Over the last decade, our understanding of CVD among firefighters has significantly improved and provides insight into potential preventive strategies. The physiology of cardiovascular arousal and other changes that occur in association with acute firefighting activities have been well-characterized. However, despite the strenuous nature of emergency duty, firefighters' prevalence of low fitness, obesity, and other CVD risk factors are high.”
Seatbelts: Another 28 firefighters and fire medics (25 percent) died in vehicle crashes, either in response mode or in normal driving conditions. Without researching each individual crash report, there is no way to determine if the vehicle occupant(s) were wearing seatbelts. Modern fire apparatus is equipped with passive restraint systems that are integrated with the SCBA harness. The cabs of fire apparatus are designed to locate controls and mounted equipment out of the path of deploying airbags.
We need to reinforce the notion that a first responder is no good to anyone if they don’t arrive safely on scene.
Other causes: The remaining LODDs succumbed to a variety of injury modalities such as burns, smoke inhalation, falls from heights, falling trees and drowning. The fire services of North America have substantially improved incident scene safety by employing the Incident Command System that includes the Safety functions and Rapid Intervention Teams.
Suicide: An April 11, 2018 article in USA Today cited that more police officers and firefighters die by suicide than in the line of duty. They reported that in 2017, 129 police officers and 93 firefighters died in the line of duty, while 140 law enforcement officers and 103 firefighters died by suicide.
There are numerous resources available to first responders who feel overwhelmed by PSTD and other circumstances. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a 24 hour, seven days a week “national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.” In addition, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is the USA’s largest “non-profit dedicated to saving lives and bringing hope to those affected by suicide. Local chapters of the AFSP host annual “Out of the Darkness” walks bringing together friends, families, and colleagues of those who have experienced suicide in their own lives. I just participated in one in Fairfax, Virginia.
The loss of any public safety practitioner is tragic, whether by job related injury, occupational borne illnesses or suicide. While eliminating deaths within our ranks is not possible, we must – as a community of practice – never cease in our pursuit of survival. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that health and safety should be our ever present top priority.
As you travel this week after dark, you may encounter a firehouse or a landmark with all its lights on. This is part of the “Light the Night” campaign by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in honor of fallen firefighters.
During FPW 2018, take note of your fire safety profile: in your home, in your places of work, in your school and in your community. Once you have done so, then thank a first responder for their service to the community – and even though this is FPW, thank them regardless of the uniform they wear, and tell them to be safe.
About the Author
Jim Dundas is a retired Fire Battalion Chief and Paramedic from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. In his 25-year career, he held both administrative and operational roles. Following his retirement, he has worked in private industry as a business developer, consultant, and communications and IT specialist. He is a Board member of the IPSA and he chairs its Memorial Committee. He currently resides in Ashburn, Virginia.