By Todd LeDuc
As 2018 winds to a close, the United States Fire Administration (USFA) is reporting 85 on-duty firefighter fatalities (this number was the last reported prior to the partial federal government shutdown). Of course, tragically many of these were related to cardiovascular death, and the number does not reflect the many more whose cardiovascular event left them permanently disabled. Sadly, these fatality numbers are not capturing members of the United States fire service who tragically passed away from taking their own lives or occupationally related cancers.
Cardiovascular death and disability, behavioral health threats, and suicide ideation and occupational cancers are all health threats that are treatable with early detection and screening, which allows for early intervention and treatment. However, the knowledge that early detection enhances survival rates on each of these preventable diseases has not led us to a fire service that ensures each of our 1.3 million members receives appropriate annual medical exams.
The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) conducted national surveys in 2006 and again in 2016 on the prevalence of members of the fire service that receive annual medical exams. Although there was progress demonstrated on improving access to medical physicals with the career side of the fire service, the same was not reported on the volunteer portion of the service. Combined, these survey results suggest that just over a half of a million of the nation’s 1.3 million firefighters were not receiving an occupational appropriate medical examination. On the behavioral health risk identification, the IAFC survey results suggested that 80 percent of career departmental personnel and 94 percent of volunteer department personnel did not receive mental wellness screenings to provide for early recognition and interventional of behavioral health disorders/diseases.
It has been said that one definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over again and expecting different results. For the American fire service in 2018, it seems that at times we are on a hamster wheel, endlessly treading in place. Despite the attention and efforts of many organizations, we must make better progress at ensuring each of our country’s 1.3 million firefighters—whether career or volunteer–receives an appropriate early detection annual screening to protect them of the inherent health risks of their occupation.
As we enter 2019, let us challenge ourselves and our organizations to provide early medical screenings–both physical and behavioral–for our firefighters to reduce preventable deaths and disabilities.
Todd J. LeDuc, MS, CFO, FIFirE, is an executive assistant chief with and a 28-year veteran of Broward County (FL) Fire Rescue, aninternationally accredited career metro department. He has a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, is a credentialed chief fire officer, and is a Fellow in the Institute of Fire Engineers. LeDuc is a peer reviewer for professional credentialing and agency accreditation. He speaks and publishes articles frequently; serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards; and has conducted more than 50 fire department evaluations, master and strategic plans, and feasibility studies on three continents. He can be reached at [email protected].