It’s the job of a firefighter to run to the direction of danger to keep you safe. But to do that, they put their own life at risk every time they run towards that danger. The Southlake Fire Department has recently taken proactive steps to minimize the overall risk placed unto firefighters due to frequent exposure to carcinogens and address the importance of the emotional health of its members.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, for many years cardiac arrest has been the number one cause of in line of duty deaths of firefighters. However, cancer-related deaths among firefighters have increased significantly over the last few decades. The Firefighter Cancer Support Network says that compared to the general population, firefighters are 68% more likely to acquire some form of cancer throughout their life.
“These findings can be contributed to the number of toxins that are encountered throughout a career, including those found at HazMat incidents, emergency medical calls, structure fires, and other life-threatening situations that may impact a firefighter’s health,” notes Deputy Chief Kurt Hall. “We took this information and took some proactive steps to put cancer reduction policies in place to ensure the health and safety of our personnel. We’ve implemented new standard operating procedures to limit exposure to cancer-causing agents.”
The new policies require firefighters to connect to an exhaust port before entering the fire bays to minimize exposure to a known carcinogen, diesel fumes. In addition, firefighters are now required to go through a decontamination process on the scene of any fire. This includes the cleaning of all gear immediately after exiting the fire while taking precautions to limit unnecessary contact of contaminated equipment.
Once the gear has been decontaminated, the emergency scene is mitigated, and all fire units have cleared the scene, all personal protective gear used in firefighting activities is stored in sealed bags to prevent contact with the firefighter’s bare skin. Once back at the fire station, the used gear is thoroughly cleaned to rid the gear of harmful materials.
A second set of personal protective gear is available for all personnel to use after their front-line gear has been contaminated. Using multiple sets of personal protective gear will ensure that firefighters are not exposed to harmful carcinogens for excessive amounts of time. Reducing the threat of contaminated personal protective gear will play a major factor in the fight on cancer in the fire service.
The Fire Department also offers pre-cancer screening blood tests that have been shown to provide early detection of breast, colon, liver and lung cancer. While this a voluntary test, it has had tremendous success during its tenure.
In addition to proactive cancer reducing measures, the Fire Department has also addressed and implemented several policies that encourage individuals to seek help for behavioral or mental health issues that could adversely affect their lives.
“The stressors that can affect emergency response personnel throughout their career can place a heavy burden on the person’s psyche,” notes Hall. “A 2017 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that more firefighters died from suicide than in the line of duty. Mental health is a critical area that the fire service must improve on. As a department, we recognize the importance of mental health and are committed to ensuring our personnel have access to receive treatment whenever needed. It’s crucial for us to consider mental health when creating and implementing improvements to an organization’s health and wellness policies. We’re proud of the fact that the Southlake Fire Department has continued to be a leader in the fire service industry when providing mental health and wellness initiatives to our personnel.”
All Southlake Fire Department personnel have 24-hour access to the Employee Assistance Program, which has numerous benefits including behavioral health counseling, legal service provided by a lawyer in the area of concern, financial services provided by a financial professional, as well as access to the EAP website that offers resources, skill-building tools online assessments, and referrals for everyday needs.
In addition, the department has implemented a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing program used to ease the acute stress responses of the fire department and other emergency personnel following an event or incident that might elicit strong emotional reactions that could adversely affect one’s ability to safely perform their duties, and/or day-to-day functions.
“We all share the responsibility for identifying significant incidents that qualify for debriefing and recognizing the signs and symptoms of their peers to call for the debriefing team,” says Hall. “Being dedicated to an organization’s member’s overall health and wellness is a lofty, yet important endeavor. As a department, we’ve been steadfast in ensuring we are fit for duty, both physically and mentally, from day one of their careers until long after their retirement.”
With the implementation of these new health and wellness policies, the City of Southlake and the Southlake Fire Department will continue to be leaders in the industry and show that their commitment to their employee’s health is a significant priority.
To learn more about the Southlake Fire Department visit their website at www.cityofsouthlake.com/firedepartment.