Firefighter Physicals: Where Are We Now?

Three years ago, the Safety, Health and Survival (SHS) Section made the formidable decision to take on the proverbial 800-pound elephant—mandatory annual medical evaluations for all firefighters.

With eyes wide open about the many hurdles that would need to be overcome, the section’s preliminary intention was to be the catalyst: to start the dialogue among all the major fire service organizations and facilitate a national discussion bringing the issue out of the shadows and to the forefront as a “must do.”

The section had little concern about gaining consensus on the need for firefighter physicals; all sound health, fitness and wellness programs begin with a comprehensive medical evaluation.

The truth is that an annual check-up isn’t a radical notion. Having a mandatory annual, job-specific medical evaluation based on empirically proven medical risks inherent to our working conditions and exposures makes great sense.

So why is there a delay in national implementation?

Like many issues in life, right doesn’t equal simple. The career side of the house has many questions and concerns about the impact on job stability for its members and the programs’ associated costs. The on-call/volunteer services have equally worthy concerns about the effect of such a mandate on recruitment and retention as well as cost.

These concerns are legitimate. However, what is also legitimate is the very real number of firefighter line-of-duty deaths and injuries related to cardiac- and stroke-related medical incidents directly connected to the job conditions we operate in.

Also completely legitimate is that a comprehensive, annual, job-specific medical evaluation has proven to be a reliable practice. It helps to achieve early detection of many underlying medical conditions that lead to life-threatening incidents and to clinically addressing them before they happen. It also works with routine screenings for early detection of the myriad cancers our profession is susceptible to.

To date, the SHS Section has held three very productive Firefighter Physicals Summits.

The first summit in 2014 was about consensus building and throwing the issue out on the table. All of the major fire-service organizations attended; different groups expressed concerns related to their constituencies. But all agreed on the need to move toward producing viable solutions to known implementation problems. Participants felt very positively that a comprehensive solution was possible.

The second summit, held at Fire-Rescue International 2015, was equally productive. This summit concentrated on building our coalition with the addition of medical researchers and clinicians. These spoke to areas related to the practicality of implementing strategies as well as identifying and building the data necessary to secure ongoing funding.

Our last summit, held at FRI in 2016, was dedicated to FSTAR’s work on the much-needed Physicians Guide. It also focused on preparing the initiative for its next iteration: handing off the project to an entity capable of dedicating staff and monetary resources to make the idea a reality. The announcement of that exciting hand-off is on track to be highlighted at FRI 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina

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