The Importance of Tracking Exposure in Firefighting
Situational awareness is no longer just for the field. It’s a concept that can also be used after incidents and in down times. Having an understanding of your crew’s physical and mental health can be key in keeping them happy and healthy for years to come.
While many of the risks firefighters face during their job are obvious, some of the most harmful dangers can be invisible. These risks include contact with hazardous chemicals, repeated exposure to traumatic events, and an increased risk for PTSD. Unfortunately, these types of injuries can be easily missed compared to a physical injury from LOD work; employers must be especially vigilant when watching for these hidden risks.
But how exactly can fire departments do that? A systematic way of tracking exposure to harmful substances and experiences can be a useful tool in not only preventing further damage and encouraging treatment, but can also aid the industry as a whole in better understanding the risks of exposure and ensuring that firefighters (and their families) have the tools necessary to manage injuries.
Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals
Whether during fire suppression, at a property storing harmful chemicals, or conducting overhaul or washdown, a firefighter may encounter unexpected dangerous substances that are not housed in their proper containers. While PPE can go a long way in protecting them from immediate contact, prolonged exposure can still take a toll.
Additionally, without proper establishment and adherence to decon protocols on PPE and equipment, firefighters may continue to prolong their exposure back at the station without even knowing it.
Tracking incidents that are known to involve hazardous chemicals can help departments develop and enforce proper decon processes and ensure that firefighters are given the proper time and equipment they need after each incident with potential exposure.
Why It Matters
Research and data unfortunately indicate there is a correlation between firefighting and cancer risk. By tracking exposure, fire departments can help ensure that team members will be supported if ever faced with a cancer diagnosis that may be associated with LOD work. This information can help a firefighter claim worker’s comp benefits, and even help ensure that family members have access to full benefits if needed.
Similarly, your department’s exposure data can be used by researchers to better understand the connection between firefighting and cancer. It can also be useful to lawmakers and other advocates pushing for legislation to support firefighters and their families. Submitting your data to organizations like the National Firefighter Registry can help paint a picture of the state of the industry, and help drive change and improved standards. These data can help inform best practices, and even make improvements in manufacturing of firefighting equipment, suppression tools, and construction materials.
Exposure to Traumatic Events
While awareness of mental health is becoming a more discussed and understood topic for the fire industry, first responders continue to be disproportionately at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and associated risks such as anxiety, depression, burnout, and even suicide. Firefighters experience another person’s “worst day of their life” on a daily basis. When the fire is out and the suit comes off, the effects of seeing so much death and destruction can linger.
Additionally, a culture of being strong and silent can be damaging to firefighters. It can be difficult to discuss struggles with mental health, even with coworkers, and people may be afraid that it could affect their job stability or status in the department. Many fire departments are proactively working to remove the stigma of reaching out for support and setting protocols to help crew members facing issues related to mental health.
An effective way of protecting crew members is tracking repeated exposure to traumatic events. Using incident tracking software, fire departments can set a threshold for a certain number of incidents deemed “potentially traumatic.” When a firefighter has worked a certain number of these types of events within a certain timeframe, the tracking software can notify management, who can then discreetly reach out to the firefighter.
Why It Matters
Tracking exposure to traumatic events is important, but it also requires a support system – such as one-on-one sessions with a chaplain or therapist, or even just a casual meeting with a veteran staff member – to ensure firefighters get the help they need when they need it.
Having these resources in place can make it more likely for a firefighter to accept the available support. And just like exposure statistics for hazardous chemicals, traumatic event exposure tracking can help your own fire department and the industry as a whole better understand and support firefighters. Fighting the epidemic of firefighter suicide begins with understanding the root cause, and having an accurate picture of the triggers and long-term effects of traumatic event exposure can be helpful.
How Fire RMS Can Help
Adding another data point to track may seem daunting or overwhelming, but the good news is that today’s top Fire Record Management Software (RMS) like ESO Fire RMS can make tracking simple and automated.
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.
Fire RMS tools also make it easier to report out on exposure incidents and stats, which is helpful when reporting to governing bodies or making a case for additional protective gear or services during budgetary discussions. QA/QI projects focused on exposure risks can also be more effective with data from your own station.
Watch ESO and FireRescue1’s Virtual Roundtable on Why You Should Track Exposure.