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Taking Care of Internal Hazards

The term all-hazards has become synonymous with the mission of the fire service over the last couple of decades. We all realize that there are very few if any all-we-do-is-fire departments today. As a result, many communities are receiving a higher level of service than ever before. The increased level of service, regardless of discipline, is without a doubt due to the character traits associated within public safety and the fire service.

It’s also due to the specific traits that embody the men and women of the fire service on a local and national level. The tenacity, professionalism, commitment and integrity we take pride in every day are responsible for our members delivering service that yields high-quality results regardless of the emergency type and make all of us an all-hazards profession.

The fire service can-do, adapt-to-our-environment, get-it-done attitude has led to the adoption of fire-based EMS as well as capabilities in hazardous materials, technical rescue and ARFF, to name a few.

But what if I said we aren’t addressing all hazards within our departments and so not taking care of our most important resource: our personnel?

We provide training and education in the disciplines we’re responsible for in our daily responses and identify the specific risks and target hazards within our communities to ensure adequate, safe response. We make command decisions and develop SOPs to ensure a successful outcome. But when it comes to addressing the true hazards and true killers we face every day, decisions are avoided because of feelings and personal agendas.

I’m talking about the hazards associated with physical fitness, mental health, cardiac-related illness and the Big C, cancer.

Forget emergency response and mitigation; the biggest thing affecting the fire service right now isn’t a change in strategy and tactics and data-based research. It’s the health and wellness of our men and women. You can’t turn on the news, look at social media or even open the latest publication without reading something about firefighter suicide, another firefighter heart attack or firefighters learning they have cancer.

If you’ve ever known any who have gone through one of these hazards, you’ve seen firsthand the devastating effects it has on the individuals, their families and everyone around them. What are we doing to prevent this? Believe me, it can happen to any department at any time, and it’s our responsibility to become a true all-hazards fire service.

So what are you doing to address these hazards? What programs and education are you delivering to your personnel about these hazards that are increased simply because of our profession? What policies and programs are you implementing to ensure every person in your organization addresses these hazards consistently and effectively? What fiscal prioritization and commitment are you making to ensure the safety, health and wellbeing of your department’s members?

The fire service is our own worst enemy when it comes to each of these topics; we aren’t committed to the problems the fire service is truly facing. Instead of demanding annual physicals for each and every member, we worry about the conspiracy to use negative medical results that could be used to fire us instead of save us. We don’t place the fiscal commitment necessary to address these hazards, but rather fight tooth and nail for a new widget to make our jobs easy or even more glamorous.

We tell personnel what to do, step by step, on an emergency scene, but we never use the words mandatory or shall when it comes to fitness programs or health initiatives. And we still think it’s a weakness to talk about the issues and incidents that affect us mentally and emotionally, thinking it makes us weak or a liability.

Sound familiar? Of course it does, and all you have to do is turn on the news, pick up a magazine, look at firefighter websites or even look at social media, and the reminders are all too apparent. Don’t think because it hasn’t happened in your organization that it can’t or won’t happen. The fire service is the same everywhere, and often, you can simply take the name off the shirt and replace it with another. We all have work to do to truly become an all-hazards fire service. Whether you have programs in place or not, there’s still more you can do.

Here are five things you can do right now:

  • Demanding and mandating annual physicals should be just the beginning; mandatory health and wellness programs, including annual physical performance tests, should be the norm and not the exception to the rule.
  • Education and training focused specifically on the hazards truly affecting our personnel should be regular topics in every firehouse across the country.
  • Mental-health programs specific to firefighter needs, not just EAP, should be readily available to every firefighter and their families.
  • Budgets should have specific line items specific to the health and wellness of our personnel and these efforts and programs should use the words mandatory and shall for everyone, from firefighters to fire chiefs.
  • Fire chiefs must set the example through their actions, commitment and dedication to address these hazards. Becoming all-hazards departments isn’t about just services provided to our communities, but also the services provided to our members.

This isn’t an easy discussion in many stations and it often leads to little or no action due to differences in opinion and the controversy that ensues. However, now’s the time to make a difference, now’s the time to take care of your fire department family, now’s the time to have the hard discussion and now’s the time to make those decisions that will be considered your legacy.

Most importantly now’s the time to become a leader, do the right thing and become an all-hazards fire department.

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