October 18, 2016 / Kay Bechtold

Protecting Our Nation's Firefighters

Earlier this month, members of the fire service, families and friends of fallen firefighters, and others observed the 35thNational Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend, a tribute to all firefighters who have died in the line of duty. On Oct. 8 and 9, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation held public ceremonies and special programs for the survivors and coworkers of fallen firefighters, honoring their service and sacrifice. The month of October, annually recognized as Fire Prevention Month, also includes National Fire Prevention Week. Sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Fire Prevention Week commemorates the Great Chicago Fire, which began on Oct. 8, 1871, and continued into Oct. 9.

Sixty-eight firefighter fatalities have been reported in 2016 so far, according to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). Industrial hygienists, occupational and environmental health and safety professionals, government agencies such as NIOSH, and others continue working to protect firefighters and other emergency responders from the chemical, physical, and other hazards of their profession.

During this time of remembrance and awareness, The Synergist looks back at recent news coverage and resources related to firefighter health and safety:

August 2013: NIOSH’s Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) Program found that firefighters could be overexposed to several chemicals in smoke simulants used during training exercises, including mineral oil mist, diethylene glycol, and thermal decomposition products. The agency recommended that trainers wear full-structural fire-fighting ensembles, including self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), at all times during or when preparing for training exercises that involve heat or fire.

October 2013: The Synergist published “Firefighting: A Toxic Profession” (AIHA member login required) a feature article that discusses how modern materials in homes have increased the toxicity of today’s fires. The article was written by Dawn Bolstad-Johnson, MPH, CIH, CSP, FAIHA, who previously served as an industrial hygienist with the Phoenix Fire Department in Arizona and was profiled in the September 2012 Synergist (AIHA member login required).

May 2014: NIOSH issued a "Workplace Solutions" publication addressing the significant risk for injury or death due to structural collapse during firefighting operations. To help protect firefighters when there is potential for a structural collapse, NIOSH recommended that the incident commander establish defensive operations and a collapse zone—the area around a structure's perimeter that could contain debris if it collapsed.

February 2015: To help prevent on-duty deaths of firefighters, NIOSH recommended that fire departments develop, implement, and enforce occupational safety and health programs in accordance with NFPA 1500, Standard for a Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program.

December 2015: NIOSH urged immediate action to protect firefighters from falls following the death of a firefighter who stepped on a translucent corrugated roof panel and fell approximately 17 feet to a concrete floor. A week later, NIOSH researchers published the first database of firefighter anthropometric information, which is intended to help improve the ergonomic and safety specifications of fire apparatus and equipment.

March 2016: A NIOSH HHE report described the agency’s evaluation regarding the potential risk of rhabdomyolysis and heat-related illness in cadets and instructors participating in firefighter training courses. Rhabdomyolysis, the breakdown of muscle tissue, can be caused by overheating, overexertion, crush injury, and certain medications, supplements, or medical conditions.

July 2016: NIOSH published a fact sheet (PDF) summarizing the findings from a study of cancer among U.S. firefighters. The multi-year study, which began in 2010, found that firefighters showed higher rates of certain types of cancer than the general U.S. population—mostly digestive, oral, respiratory, and urinary cancers.

August 2016: After the Fire,” a feature article published in the August 2016 issue of The Synergist, covered the potential health risks of wildfire residues in the indoor environment. The author, Enrique Medina, MS, CIH, CSP, FAIHA, discussed how smoke inhalation can have acute and chronic effects on the health of wildland firefighters.

October 2016: New research published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene (JOEH) suggests that fire departments can reduce stress on firefighters by signaling emergencies with alarms that gradually increase in intensity instead of sudden, full-volume alerts. The authors note that heart attacks accounted for 42 percent of on-duty deaths in the last five years, and that previous studies have established that firefighters are more susceptible to heart attacks when responding to emergencies versus non-emergencies. USFA’s most recent annual report, published in August 2015, states that heart attacks were the most frequent cause of death among U.S. firefighters in 2014, accounting for the deaths of 59 of 91 firefighters who died while on duty that year.

If you’re an OEHS professional working to help improve the health and safety of firefighters or other emergency responders, what are the main challenges you face? Leave your responses in the comments below or share your efforts by emailing the editors.

Kay Bechtold

Kay Bechtold is assistant editor of The Synergist.


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