5 Ways to Support Firefighter Wellbeing
The health and wellbeing of emergency responders is in the spotlight now more than ever. Major events like COVID-19, extreme weather, and wildfires are testing the resilience of first responders. Without preventive care, the stress can build to an unmanageable level. In fact, firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
The physical and mental stress – as well as the challenges that firefighters face through the course of their careers – lead to unique long-term risks. For example:
- Potential exposure to harmful chemicals or gases on the fireground that may impact respiratory health or lead to cancer
- Repeated exposure to trauma that may negatively impact mental health or lead to PTSD
- Physical and mental effects of disrupted sleep, shift work, high rates of burnout, and even potential threats to physical safety during a call
It is crucial for fire departments to monitor the physical and mental wellbeing of its crew members to ensure that they remain safe, healthy, and ready to continue protecting the communities they serve.
What Can Fire Departments Do?
Fire departments wanting to proactively help their firefighters stay as healthy as possibly – mentally and physically – can consider taking some of the following actions.
1. Promote Preventive Healthcare
Encourage crew members to stay up-to-date on their preventive healthcare and wellness screenings to ensure they are in good health so they can feel their best in both their work and family lives. Good health, especially cardiovascular wellness, is extremely important, as cardiac fatalities represent nearly 50 percent of on-duty deaths. Keeping your body in good condition can help it better handle the physical stressors of fire suppression, like increases in body temperatures, anxiety/tension, and blood pressure.
2. Track Exposure
By tracking potential exposure to hazardous substances and environments, fire departments can not only improve working conditions for crews, but also more proactively help those who may become ill. Chemicals designed for fire suppression, construction materials, carcinogens, or hazardous chemicals that crews may come in contact with during an incident response or clean-up may have long-term physical effects, including increased risks for cancer.
By tracking exposure, PPE use, and decon procedures, fire departments can help associate an illness back to an exposure, which can be helpful in firefighters receiving appropriate diagnosis, medical coverage, worker’s compensation, and line of duty death benefits. Additionally, exposure data can help departments establish more effective decontamination protocols such as gross decon and routine cleaning of turnout gear prior to leaving the scene, continuing to use PPE while doffing gear, and using wipes on exposed skin.
Today’s top Fire RMS software tools can make exposure tracking simple and efficient. For example, cancer exposure and decontamination fields are integrated into ESO Fire RMS so firefighters can document exposures in one convenient place while completing the Fire Incident report. This exposure tracking can be especially helpful in the COVID era; the 2021 ESO Fire Service Index noted that COVID-19 was a suspected or confirmed factor in 2.2% of all calls in 2020, so monitoring crew members for potential COVID-19 exposure is a top priority.
3. Share Health and Exposure Data
Tracking exposures is only one part of the equation; data must be analyzed and interpreted to fully understand the risks that firefighters face and develop best practices to help mitigate risk. On an industry-wide level, sharing health and exposure data with employers and organizations like the National Firefighter Registry can assist researchers studying the correlation between certain illnesses and exposures.
This data can also help form best industry practices, legislation and guidelines, and even make improvements in manufacturing of firefighting equipment, suppression tools, and construction materials.
4. Create a Culture for Positive Mental Health
Firefighting can take a significant toll on an individual’s mental wellbeing as a result of repeated exposure to trauma, which can lead to behavioral health concerns like anxiety, depression, burnout, and PTSD. Unfortunately, the traditional culture in the firehouse has not always been open to discussing mental health issues. Many firefighters suffer in silence, feeling they must never show any signs of “weakness.” This has laid the groundwork for the rise in PTSD and suicides in the fire industry.
With a proactive, open approach, fire stations can reduce the stigma of mental health and create a framework that makes it easier for firefighters to ask for and receive mental health services. For example, you can create a peer support team comprised of specially-trained firefighters who can listen, mentor, or provide other support to crew members who have experienced recent trauma, or who are having other professional difficulties. Organizations like the International Association of Firefighters offer peer support training and other educational resources.
5. Make Mental Health Resources Readily Available
Fire departments can also proactively reach out to team members by tracking exposure to traumatic events just as they would track injuries from the fire ground. After an individual responds to a certain number of traumatic calls, a new protocol can be triggered as a mental health check-in, like an informal 1:1 peer support interaction, or something more formal with a counselor or chaplain. Several fire departments have also added full-time or contract psychologists to support their staff.
Additionally, advances in technology like integrating exposure tracking into records management systems make it easier for fire departments to track important data that may help reveal trends and help save the lives of future firefighters. For more ideas and resources, fire departments can look into programs like the National Volunteer Fire Council’s Share the Load and organizations like the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.
Healthy in Body and Mind
Fire departments should have a vested interest in the physical and mental health and safety of their crews, and implement best practices to support them. A firefighter’s ability to serve his or her community encompasses the wellness of both body and mind. By being more aware of the health of crewmembers, fire departments can ensure they are always prepared to respond, while helping their crews maintain good health today and in the years to come.
If you or anyone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). This is free and confidential. You will be connected to a counselor in your area. For more information, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.