Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of U.S. Navy’s James E. Foehl.
By Dan Kerrigan
In any given year, around 50 percent of the line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) suffered in the fire service can be attributed to firefighter health issues. When visiting the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland (which I strongly encourage you to do), you will see that the flags at the firefighter memorial are usually lowered in honor of another fallen brother or sister, and that’s a sobering fact that must be changed.
The fire service has placed a tremendous focus on fireground tactics as they relate to firefighter safety. Much of what we have learned is backed by hard science, and it’s hard to ignore the data; it is forcing fire service leaders to open their eyes wider and take in a more global view of how we do things when we show up at a working fire. We’re learning that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to fighting the fires we face in today’s construction. Although not mandated, this new viewpoint will surely have a positive effect on the casualty rate suffered among the members of our profession. The willingness to listen to what’s being said on the subject of modern fire attack is reassuring; it’s proof that we are finally willing to consider new ideas instead of saying “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
What’s troubling is that in any given year, even if we were able to reduce the LODD total to zero because of operational activities on the fireground, we still may be left with 50 or more LODDs (based on past statistics), most of them attributed to our lack of health and physical conditioning. This is the elephant in the room; everyone knows it, yet it still exists.
Here’s the deal: If you are a firefighter, maintaining your health and fitness is a requirement of your job—period. The physical and mental stressors we deal with are acute and cumulative. In a profession where we can do everything right and still experience bad outcomes, why increase those odds by ignoring our own personal health and wellness?
We’ve all heard it a million times or more: fire doesn’t discriminate. It’s true; it doesn’t discriminate between civilians and firefighters, but civilians have a reasonable expectation that firefighters will be prepared to act and be able to carry out their duties in a capable and competent manner. It also doesn’t discriminate between career and volunteer firefighters. There are no excuses for sitting back and collecting your paycheck without any regard for how your own level of fitness for duty might impact the number of people that depend on you. Likewise, volunteering your time doesn’t give you the right to ignore the responsibilities of health and fitness for duty. The job is the same! There is no room for entitlement and no excuse for mediocrity in our profession, regardless of your status. I don’t care if you’re the most skilled firefighter that ever graced anyone with your presence on the fireground; if you suffer a heart attack after you arrive because you neglected personal responsibility for your own health, you’re not an asset to anyone; you’re a liability.
Our profession is at its best when we follow Ben Franklin’s advice: Well done is better than well said. When we lead by example—starting at the top—and have the courage to say what needs to be said and stand by it through our actions, we can do great things. But, our leadership cannot do it alone. Recently, outgoing International Association of Fire Chiefs President William R. Metcalf said he believed we could reduce the number of LODDs to zero. I agree with him, but everyone has to take some responsibility for that goal, and your attitude about this issue is the key. There has to be a commitment from the top, right on down to every individual firefighter to recognize the importance of our own health and promote that attitude on a daily basis.
There can be no excuses. There are simply too many people that depend on us to do this dangerous work and still go home at the end of our shift. Downplaying the importance of your health or merely assuming that you are fit to do the work amounts to a display of selfishness and recklessness that should not be tolerated.
So, ask yourself: Are you an asset or a liability to your department, to your coworkers, to your community and, most of all, to your loved ones? Be honest in your reflection, because the choices you make affect far more people than you might realize. I challenge you to become an advocate for firefighter health and wellness. If you do not step up and take action to promote firefighter health and wellness every day, this problem will never go away.
Dan Kerrigan is a 28-year fire service veteran and an assistant fire marshal/deputy emergency management coordinator and department health and fitness coordinator for the East Whiteland Township Department of Codes and Life Safety in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Kerrigan is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master’s Degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership. He is a PA State Fire Academy Suppression Level Instructor as well as an adjunct professor at Anna Maria College and Immaculata University. Contact Kerrigan at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @dankerrigan2.