Asthma should not be a disqualification
Knollwood (IL) Fire Department
I am responding to “Volunteer Firefighter with Asthma Not Qualified for Career Firefighting Position” by Thomas D. Schneid (Fire Service Court, February 1997). I am currently a volunteer firefighter/EMT. My fiance is a career fire lieutenant, and I am the mother of two young children, so becoming full-time is out of the question. Yet, the implications of this decision concern me.
I was diagnosed recently with asthma, which is triggered by a food allergy. I do not believe this makes me a liability. My asthma is controlled by medication when needed and is usually not even an issue. I participate as a full member of my department, and I pull my weight. Since I am a woman, this becomes even more critical. I give it my all, and I would never participate if I thought my condition would endanger me or fellow firefighters.
Medical advances being what they are, shouldn`t these cases be decided individually? The firefighter in question was cleared by one doctor; a second gave the opinion that the firefighter could control his asthma with medication. The point about an inhaler becoming a hazard when exposed to open flame makes me question just where they think he would use it–inside a burning building? Inhalers are used for preventive measures, before an attack occurs. They would not have to be carried on the person. Oral medicines are also used ….
If individuals can perform their duties in spite of a “handicap,” as it was put in the article, then why should they be discriminated against? The firefighter in question had been a volunteer for eight years. Don`t career firefighters respond to the same incidents as volunteers? Except for down time between calls, there is no difference. We are all in the business of helping people. I think it`s a shame to exclude anyone from what for most of us is a dream job because of a condition that is controllable.
Thomas D. Schneid responds: The primary purpose of my articles on the Americans with Disabilities Act is to increase the awareness of firefighters, EMTs, and fire departments regarding this very important and complex law. If these articles can raise the attention level of all involved, it is my hope that unique situations such as a firefighter with asthma can be addressed and rectified prior to costly and protracted litigation, which often detrimentally affects all parties involved.
Please be aware that the ADA is relatively new compared with most laws and that case law is still being developed through the courts. Unique cases, such as this case, simply provide guidance should similar circumstances arise in the future. In most situations, I tend to agree that individuals with controlled asthma can perform most if not all of the essential functions of a firefighter or EMT position.
However, fire departments should evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis to address any unique factors or circumstances that may be involved. As you are aware, the ADA prohibits discrimination against any qualified individual with a disability. This law was developed to create a level playing field for individuals with disabilities. To address the specific point of your letter, the ADA was developed to protect qualified individuals with disabilities against discrimination and thus include them (rather than exclude them) from participation in the fire service or any other employment.
It is my hope that all firefighters, EMTs, and fire departments will take the time to learn more about the ADA and their rights and responsibilities under this law. Identifying potential problems and opening specific issues for discussion can be the initial steps in the learning process, which can benefit all involved parties.