Features, Firefighting, Health & Safety

Hundreds Gather in MA to Support Health and Wellness for Female Firefighters

By Stephanie A. Crayton

The first ever “Women’s Safety, Health and Wellness Conference” was held on Friday, November 8, hosted by the Boston (MA) Fire Department (BFD). The BFD has a dedicated department named the “Safety, Health, and Wellness Division,” whose sole responsibility is for the health and well-being of its firefighters—all of its firefighters.

The Conference was conceptualized in July 2018 when a group of BFD female firefighters met with Dr. Beverly Moy, the clinical director at the Massachusetts General Hospital for the Breast Oncology Program, to discuss the issue of cancer with female firefighters. During that meeting, the discussion of women’s health for female firefighters took on a path of its own, and the idea of a more informative meeting was born. As more details were discussed, Finn strongly supported this being a bigger and longer event that would be open to all.

Many people joined together to make this event possible. Without the strong support from Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn; Dr. Moy; BFD Deputy Chief of Safety, Health, and Wellness James Lonergan; District Chief Ronald Harrington; and BFD Captain Gregory Fall, the event never would have gotten off the ground. This event was put together in a mere five months. Logistics, “goodie” bags, coordinating schedules, speakers, and so much more were seamlessly managed by civilians Melissa Knight and Kathleen Kalil, BFD Firefighter Margaret Connolly, and many other BFD Firefighters who saw the importance of this event and assisted whenever and wherever they could! 

The conference initially began as a free event for BFD firefighters, but it was later decided that the event would be free and open to all. Word spread quickly, and there were about 300 registrants—170 from Massachusetts and the rest from out of state—as far away as California (and 17 other states) and some from, as far away as Canada! BFD partnered with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts (PFFM), the city of Boston, and Boston Local 718 to put this great event together.

The opening ceremony was filled with “heavy hitters,” including Commissioner Finn, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Firefighter Local 718 President Bobby Petitti, IAFF 3rd District Vice President Jay Colbert, and PFFM President Richard McKinnon. The “MC” for the event was BFD Captain Deanna McDevitt, who just this week was promoted to Deputy Chief, making her the first female deputy chief in BFD’s history.

As you can imagine, the focus of the event was on women’s health in the fire department, specifically cancer. The event had an underlying theme of “sharing”: sharing information, sharing experiences, and sharing data. Mashpee (MA) Fire Department Lieutenant Nicole Stanley spoke about her experience as a survivor of breast cancer. She shared intimate details from prior to her diagnosis all the way through her tough days of treatment and to her remission.

Following her heart-tugging experience, Dr. Christine Kannler, who lost her firefighter brother to esophageal cancer, spoke about her admiration for firefighters and desire to help stomp out cancer. Dr Kannler shared her personal story about her brother’s cancer, and then immediately ran into another room to begin doing skin cancer screenings for conference attendees.

The famous Dr. Michael Hamrock, a former BFD firefighter turned medical doctor, spoke about getting proper preventative care from your primary doctor. We were even furnished with two letters from Dr. Hamrock, one for us as firefighters to use as a self-advocate tool, of which tests and lab work we need completed and another to give to our primary care physicians, explaining the tests that are needed, how often, and why.

However, there was more than cancer talk at the conference! Deanna Griffiths spoke about substance abuse and women in the fire department. Yes, we share a lot with our brothers, even coping mechanisms. Nutritionist Chloe Schweinshaut, RD, LDN, was there to talk about not just how nutrition impacts our weight but how it affects our overall health and what signs to look at for optimum health, including a discussion on poop…with visuals! It was definitely a discussion to have with all firefighters! 

Reproductive health (including men’s), pregnancy, breast milk, and “pump and dump” were all touched on. Although data is still coming in on these topics, we were all learning what aspects we can control and in what ways we can help our sisters.

Personally, my biggest takeaway from the conference was that there is not enough data. The reason for this is two-fold: 1) There are not enough women in the fire service, and 2) the women in the fire service are not participating enough in the studies being conducted.

There were other important takeaways from the conference, such as the importance of sharing challenges in the fire service with others and participating in the studies being done as well as the importance of educating yourself and your primary care physician. And, although there were some parts of the conference that did not apply to me directly, I was there, listening and learning to share with others in my department. My lieutenant and a few others from my department were unable to attend, but thanks to technology, they joined in though the Web site link.

One of the greatest visuals from the conference was seeing the number of men present, who were there to support the women in their departments. Regardless of whether the topic applied to their health, they showed they cared for the women who lead them, who they lead, and who stand beside them on the fireground.

Stephanie A. Crayton is a firefighter with the Cambridge (MA) Fire Department and a state representative for iWomen.