Surviving Your Fire Service Career

By Todd J. LeDuc, MS, CFO, CEM, FIFirE

Whether you are starting out as a probationary firefighter, serving as chief fire officer or anywhere in between, during your career in the fire service--survival is key. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) embraces this concept with the “Everyone Goes Home” program. United States Fire Administration (USFA) statistics have repeatedly demonstrated approximately 100 annual line of duty deaths and some 80,000 line of duty injuries--some disabling. These sobering statistics do not include occupationally related cancers--a growing concern in the United States fire service.

Learn More About Fire Science DegreesUSFA statistics continually show that cardiovascular events are the leading cause of line of duty deaths with muscular and skeletal injuries as the leading cause of injuries. Recently, the NFFF hosted the first ‘Heart to Heart’ conference to develop a strategy on how to utilize studies that have been conducted to decrease firefighter cardiac disease and death.

According to Keith Padgett, Fire and EMS Academic Program Director, Columbia Southern University, “Research is playing a vital role in warranting that firefighters have a long safe career. We must continue to promote this evidence-based approach, not only in cardiac related deaths but cancer as well.”

New research has demonstrated that American firefighters suffer from an epidemic of obesity, higher than even the general population.

New research has demonstrated that American firefighters suffer from an epidemic of obesity, higher than even the general population. This may be attributed to a constellation of factors including shift work, stress, sleep disturbances and poor coping mechanisms (e.g., excess alcohol use). Programs aimed at addressing healthy nutrition have been and are being further trialed in fire departments such as Broward County, Florida and Indianapolis, looking at the benefits of a Mediterranean diet on reducing weight and cardiovascular risk. Annual medical screenings, called for in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1582 guideline, also serve as an invaluable screening tool for early detection and prevention of potential life threatening conditions. In fact, the International Association of Fire Chief’s (IAFC) Safety, Health & Survival Section has adopted access to annual physicals as a singular strategic goal. Fire service cancers have not been included in USFA line of duty statistics to date. The recent large scale National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study of approximately 35,000 firefighters from Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco demonstrated elevated rates of certain cancers when compared to general population controls. The Firefighter Cancer Support Network and other stakeholders have been active in identifying preventative strategies such as removing apparatus exhaust fumes safely from fire station bays, routine cleaning of gear and firefighters after exposures, and the importance of respiratory protection through all phases of fire control.

No discussion of surviving your fire service career would be complete without discussing the importance of behavioral health. Health, wellness and safety in the fire service are multifaceted involving physical well being, nutritional well being and behavioral well being. It has been well-documented that the stressors of a fire service career will take a toll on the behavioral well being of firefighters. Significant rates of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) have been reported in literature with regards to firefighters. Additionally, higher rates than general population controls have also been reported for alcohol abuse, sleep disturbances and unhealthy weight gains. Fire service suicide is also an issue that is believed to be under-reported and acknowledged anecdotal data suggest it is an issue requiring robust proactive preventative strategies. Fire departments must have in place proactive and preventative programs aimed at maintaining behavioral acuity and offering treatment for any behavioral conditions.

Finally, research has and will continue to drive changes to fire ground tactics and strategies making us not only more effective in our endeavors but safer. It is imperative that all firefighters and fire service leaders be vigilant against these manageable risks during their fire service careers.

BIO: Todd J. LeDuc, MS, CFO, CEM, FIFirE is division chief of health, safety & accreditations for Broward County, Fla. He holds a master’s degree in fire service organizational leadership, is credentialed as a chief fire officer and certified emergency manager and holds fellowship status in the Institute of Fire Engineers. He is secretary of the International Association of Fire Chief’s (IAFC) Safety Health & Survival Section and a peer reviewer for both professional credentialing and agency accreditation with the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE).