Meaningful Fire Service Health and Safety Is Within Our Grasp

By Thomas Warren

There are countless studies, regulations, standards, and policies regarding health and safety in the fire service. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) itself has more than 20 standards relating directly to firefighter health and safety, with many more standards indirectly relating to the health and safety of firefighters. The fire service has been witness to an explosive evolution in technological improvements in recent years. Significant progress has been made in improving health and safety and reducing the number of line-of-duty deaths, feats which all firefighters clearly should be proud of. However we can never rest: the stakes are too high for complacency, and there is always more work to do.

Technology and innovation have improved the daily working lives of firefighters in areas such as equipment and apparatus. Policy and regulation development has guided many departments in improving firefighter health and safety through standard operating guidelines and operational procedures, but the next big challenge in firefighter health and safety lies mostly with individual firefighters themselves. Many of us have seen pictures of firefighters operating on the fireground using unsafe practices or misusing equipment. The paradigm shift is now focused on the culture of the fire service and individual firefighters themselves. The two main areas of concern to prevent firefighter deaths are apparatus accidents and poor physical conditioning, which often leads to heart attacks. Let’s look at some of the low-cost and no-cost changes that can be made on an individual level that will significantly improve firefighter safety and promote long-term health and well-being. This is simply a brief listing that just touches the surface of where to start improving health and safety.

NFPA Standard 1582

This standard, the Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments, is a critical program that medically evaluates every firefighter to ensure that everyone responding to fires or emergencies is healthy enough to perform the necessary emergency functions of a modern fire department. This is one program that will require funding, but there are many creative ways to accomplish this necessary program at little or no cost.

Physical conditioning and wellness programs

Fire departments should develop a wellness program and encourage firefighters to engage in exercise programs while on duty and to maintain proper weight. There are many sources available to help departments and individual firefighters develop a program. Athletes continually work to maintain their physical condition for peak performance, and firefighters are in many ways like professional athletes.

Diet and Nutrition

One of the most effective tools to promote camaraderie and effectiveness is sharing fire stations meals. Corporations in the private sector spend thousands on dollars every year to develop team-building programs; in the fire service, this team-building concept is built into the every day activity of preparing and sharing a meal together. In most of the firehouses I visit these days, I find that the meals prepared are much improved over the heavy lunches and fat-laden meals of years ago. Firefighters can and must make the effort to maintain a health diet while in the fire station. There are many sources of information on diet and nutrition that can be provided to reach this goal.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Every firefighter must have properly fitting PPE and wear it correctly. Proper PPE consists of NFPA-compliant boots, trousers, coat, hood, gloves, PASS devices, radio, hand light, highway safety vests and helmet. Also included should be NFPA-compliant work (station) clothing. Firefighters should also use all available hearing protection equipment when responding or using noisy hand tools. Every jurisdiction provides PPE for its firefighters--it is up to the firefighters to use it on every emergency call.

SCBA and Air-Management Policies

Every firefighter operating in an environment classified as immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) shall use self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). This means ALL fires, including auto fires. It also means that the SCBA be worn properly including the waist straps. Departments should inspect and test the SCBA and face mask at least annually. The equipment is on the apparatus, but it is up to the firefighters to use it in IDLH environments.

Driver Training

Every department should have an apparatus accident prevention program in place that includes a review of all applicable state and local laws regarding safe operation of fire apparatus. Included in this program must be a requirement that all persons riding on fire apparatus shall be seated and belted any time a vehicle is in motion. Seat belt use is the single most important life-saving procedure when a vehicle is involved in an accident. Fire apparatus manufacturers have made tremendous improvements in safer fire apparatus design from just several years ago. Any apparatus accident-prevention program must also include the speed at which a response is made. Unnecessarily high-speed responses are dangerous to both firefighters and civilians. Departments may want to consider a code yellow-type response for non-emergency calls.

Standard Operational Procedures and Accountability

Every department should have standard operational procedures (SOPs) in place to guide all fireground and emergency operations, as well as accountability programs for all firefighters operating at any fire or emergency scene. Every firefighter must know what is expected as well as what is expected of all other firefighters operating at fires or emergencies. Chaotic and uncoordinated operations lead to injuries or worse. Incident command systems operating with SOPs and personnel accountability systems will yield safer and more efficient operations.

Vehicle Exhaust Removal Systems

Every firehouse must have a vehicle exhaust removal system for every apparatus housed in any building. Fire apparatus manufacturers have made progress with clean diesel technology in recent years, but the effects of diesel exhaust are well known, and this equipment can reduce, if not eliminate, this potential carcinogen. Funding sources can be found locally or through grant programs.

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This is a short list that focuses on the two leading causes of firefighter deaths over the past several years: those caused by apparatus accidents and those caused by heart attacks. As we can see, there are many small things that can be done daily that can add up to improved lives for today’s firefighters and further reduce firefighter line-of-duty deaths.

There are many other changes that can be made personally and through the fire service in general that will improve the health of firefighters, such as ergonomically designed fire apparatus, employee assistance programs, infectious disease control, apparatus inspection/testing, fire station maintenance, staffing, and many others. We must change what we can ourselves even as we take on the larger challenges that lie before us. We have the power and knowledge to help ourselves and our families.

THOMAS N. WARREN has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University.

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