“The volunteer fire service has distinct issues related to health and safety that need to be specifically addressed,” said NVFC Chairman Philip Stittleburg. “We lose too many volunteer firefighters in line-of-duty deaths.”
According to USFA, approximately 823,950 volunteer firefighters work in the United States. More than 70 percent of the nation’s fire departments are entirely volunteer-based, and 17 percent are mostly volunteer or combination departments. With the vast majority of fire departments and their communities dependent on volunteer firefighters, there is a critical need for effective health and safety programs to protect these volunteers from preventable injury, illness and death.
Health and Safety Concerns
The report, “Emerging Health and Safety Issues in the Volunteer Fire Service,” draws on an NVFC Foundation questionnaire that examined the personal health, well-being and safety practices among firefighters. A total of 364 firefighters completed the survey, including 149 career firefighters, 165 volunteer firefighters and 50 others who labeled themselves both career and volunteer firefighters.
The questionnaire revealed various health problems experienced by firefighters, including high cholesterol (40 percent), high blood pressure (25 percent), feeling stressed most days of the week (32 percent), diabetes (4 percent) and heart disease or heart attack/stroke (3 percent).
Firefighters who responded to the questionnaire also revealed the following safety concerns:
- Not assigned or did not wear PPE (11 percent);
- Considered fire vehicles and vehicle operation to be unsafe (6 percent);
- Department does not employ a safety officer (12 percent); and
- Departments take aggressive firefighting actions when minimal life- or property-saving potential exists (18 percent).
In addition, 45 percent of firefighters listed poor training as their primary safety concern. A quarter of respondents said over-aggressiveness was their top safety issue.
The survey results show that a structured personal health program and on-the-job safety operations are imperative to protect the safety, well-being and survival of firefighters.
The report proposed a set of initiatives and strategies to reduce fatalities among volunteer firefighters:
- Secure senior fire service leadership – Gaining active endorsement and promotion by senior fire service leadership is necessary for the development of a sustainable and successful health, wellness and safety program.
- Create a cohesive health, wellness, and safety committee/team – Regional health, wellness and safety teams can coordinate efforts to promote participation in these programs.
- Create an operating plan – Establish an effective plan that includes implementation strategies and a timeline; marketing and communication procedures; measurable and achievable objectives; an evaluation plan; a budget; and a future vision of the program.
- Choose appropriate interventions – Lifestyle interventions that promote heart-health behaviors are a major strategy in reducing the incidence and development of coronary heart disease. Develop and intervention for fire personnel with preventative measures focusing on cholesterol, physical activity, blood pressure, diabetes and safety.
- Create a supportive environment – Include healthy choices in the vending machines; maintain no-smoking policies; offer physical fitness areas; offer healthy lifestyle and safe practices award recognition; and encourage, reward and reward compliance with all safety and health practices.
- Consistently evaluate outcomes – Evaluations are important to determine the cost benefit of the interventions; compare different types of interventions and their effectiveness; and provide information about the program to senior leaders and participants.
“In order to decrease the number of sudden cardiac deaths and the onset of other chronic diseases in firefighters, as well as to ensure the safety of our nation’s first responders, it is imperative to institute a comprehensive health, wellness, and safety initiative,” the report read.
For more information and to access the complete study, visit http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/fireservice/research/safety/emergent.shtm.