Commentary: A Year in Review

Much Work Ahead on the Horizon for the Fire Service

Firefighters in full gear

By Todd LeDuc

2021 was a year of turmoil and challenge as the fire service navigated the continued daunting points of the global pandemic, COVID-19. Testing, compulsory vaccine mandates, and new variants all continue to make navigation public health and public safety of first responders a challenge.

Amid all this the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released this December of 2021 their 5th edition of the national fire service needs assessment and on the health and wellness front. It is a “whopper,” to say the least. Let me explain my frame of reference and perspective, having served as an elected member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Safety, Health & Survival Board; attending the Tampa summits and National Fallen Firefighter Foundations research gatherings; serving on the advisory board of the First Responder Center of Excellence; and now as the chief strategy officer for the Country’s largest provider of public safety physicals. By all accounts, it seems like we have made health and safety inroads in the fire service. Perhaps we have. I was interviewing a well-known fire service icon who worked with Chief Bruno at Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department more than four decades ago who told me he thought we had advanced 75 percent of the way further in regards to health, wellness, and safety than from when he began his career in the fire service.

Let’s take a look at the revelations within the latest published needs assessment. This Fifth Fire Service Needs Assessment Survey was conducted by NFPA beginning in 2020 and concluding in 2021. It follows earlier surveys completed in 2001, 2005, 2010, and 2015. A total of 2,969 fire departments responded to the survey, with approximately 75 percent responding online and 25 percent filling out the paper version. Overall, the response rate was 11 percent, ranging from a seven-percent response from fire departments protecting populations of less than 2,500 to a 39-percent response from fire departments protecting populations of 500,000 or more. The previous needs assessment report included additional state-level reporting. NFPA will be working in the coming months to produce these types of reports for selected states.

This report shows that while some fire service needs have been declining, many have remained constant or increased. Fire service needs exist for departments of all sizes and in every area, including staffing, training and certification, facilities, apparatus, personal protective equipment (PPE), and health and wellness. In general, the smaller the community protected, the greater the need. 

On the health and wellness front, 72 percent of departments reported that they dd not have programs to maintain basic firefighter fitness and health.  Even more surprising, and despite a national focus by numerous national fire service stakeholder organizations, still 61 percent of departments reported that they do not provide physical and medical evaluations for all firefighters that are compliant with NFPA 1582, Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments. With the increasing recognition that firefighters are “tactical athletes” and need to be properly conditioned to be safe in efficient in performing their necessary essential tasks, still departments reported that they did provide medical examinations, 43 percent did not have a fitness assessment component, meaning that number is likely significantly among all departments. Lastly, 73 percent of departments reported they did not have behavioral health programs.

So where is the disconnect and what can we collectively do about it as we head into 2022? Well, let’s start by asking how many of our departments have preventative maintenance programs for our apparatus fleet? It has been my experience that nearly all departments do. We would never put our members in a piece of apparatus that potentially had braking issues, worn tires and other mechanical repair needs. Should we also not expect the same when it comes to providing for the health, wellness of our personnel? The FEMA Assistance to Firefighter Grants (AFG) submission deadline has been extended to January 21 in the New Year, providing for an excellent opportunity to jump start your health and wellness needs.

Todd Leduc

Todd J. LeDuc, MS, CFO, FIFirE, retired after nearly 30 years as assistant fire chief of Broward County, Florida, an internationally accredited career metro department. He served as chief strategy officer for Life Scan Wellness Centers, a national provider of comprehensive physicals and early detection exams. He has served as a member of the International Association of Fire Chief’s Safety, Health & Survival Section for over a decade and is currently secretary of the section. He is a peer reviewer for both professional credentialing and agency accreditation. He is editor of Surviving the Fire Service (Fire Engineering Books) and serves on numerous advisory boards and publications. He can  be contacted at Todd. LeDuc@lifescanwellness.com.

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