The firefighting profession is a vital and challenging field that requires individuals to confront various hazards while protecting lives and property. From battling intense heat and toxic fumes to navigating through treacherous environments, firefighters face a range of dangers in the line of duty.
According to National Fire Protection Association, fireground operations pose a higher risk of injury for firefighters compared to other duties. In 2021, approximately 19,200 injuries, accounting for 32 percent of all reported firefighter injuries, occurred on the fireground.
Overexertion or strain was the leading cause of fireground injuries, representing 25 percent of cases, followed by jumps, falls, slips, or trips at 24 percent. Strains, sprains, or muscular pain injuries made up 41 percent of fireground injuries.
Other significant injuries included cuts, wounds, bleeding, or bruising at 15 percent, fire or chemical burns at 6 percent, thermal stress ( heat exhaustion or frostbite) at 5 percent, and gas or inhalation at 5 percent.
It is essential to understand these hazards and take proactive measures to safeguard oneself. In this article, we will explore the potential hazards of the firefighting profession and discuss strategies for protecting firefighters.
Inhalation Risk for Firefighters
Respiratory hazards pose a significant risk to firefighters, as they frequently encounter smoke, toxic gases, and chemical fumes in the line of duty. Inhalation of these substances can lead to immediate and long-term health issues.
According to a KHQA report, continuous exposure to smoke, similar to smoking, can result in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer. However, even a single instance of inhaling harmful smoke can cause damage to the lungs.
Aaron Wittler, a Tri-Township Fire Protection District firefighter, highlighted the risks firefighters face from the combustion of various materials. These materials release toxic agents such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, asbestos, and diesel exhaust.
Wittler emphasized the concerning presence of numerous carcinogens in modern products, particularly those containing plastics and synthetic materials.
It is crucial to emphasize the importance of respiratory protection measures to mitigate these hazards. Firefighters should be equipped with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that provides a clean air supply independent of the surrounding environment.
SCBA ensures firefighters have a continuous flow of breathable air, protecting their lungs from harmful substances. Additionally, proper respiratory protection protocols must be followed, including the correct fit and maintenance of respirators, regular air quality checks, and adherence to safety guidelines during firefighting operations.
Prioritizing respiratory protection can safeguard firefighters’ health and well-being in hazardous environments.
Protection from Heat-Related Injuries
Heat-related injuries and burns are significant risks faced by firefighters during firefighting operations. The extreme temperatures encountered in these situations can lead to severe burns and heat stress.
To mitigate these hazards, firefighters must prioritize the use of proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Fire-resistant clothing, including turnout gear, helps shield the body from direct heat exposure. It acts as a barrier, reducing the risk of burns and heat-related injuries.
Additionally, helmets, gloves, and boots designed explicitly for firefighting offer further protection. These specialized PPE items are constructed with heat-resistant materials to withstand high temperatures.
Hazards of AFFF and PFAS
Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) is a widely used firefighting foam specifically designed to combat flammable liquid fires. However, the use of AFFF has raised concerns due to the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of chemicals used in some formulations of AFFF.
These chemicals have been linked to environmental and health hazards. PFAS are persistent in the environment and have the potential to bioaccumulate, causing long-lasting contamination of soil, water sources, and aquatic ecosystems.
The adverse effects of PFAS exposure through AFFF have led to legal action in recent years. AFFF firefighting foam lawsuit has been filed by individuals, communities, and environmental organizations seeking compensation for damages and demanding accountability from manufacturers.
TruLaw notes that if you or someone you care about has been exposed to firefighting foam and later diagnosed with cancer, you may be eligible to participate in an AFFF lawsuit. Firefighting foam attorneys can guide you in collecting evidence to support your claim, evaluating damages resulting from exposure, and identifying responsible parties to hold accountable in the lawsuit.
Minimizing Physical Risk for Firefighters
Physical strain and injuries are significant concerns for firefighters due to the demanding nature of their work. Firefighters regularly face physically challenging tasks, such as carrying heavy equipment, moving debris, working in confined spaces, and navigating through uneven terrain.
These activities can lead to musculoskeletal injuries, strains, or overexertion. To mitigate these risks, firefighters must prioritize their physical fitness.
Regular exercise and strength training can help build endurance, flexibility, and overall physical resilience. Implementing proper lifting and carrying techniques, such as using leg muscles instead of the back, maintaining a neutral spine, and seeking assistance when needed, can significantly reduce the risk of injuries.
Additionally, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including adequate rest and nutrition, is vital to support physical well-being and optimize performance.
Addressing Psychological Well-Being
Firefighters face significant mental health challenges due to their profession’s demanding and high-stress nature. The exposure to traumatic events, long working hours, and the pressure to perform under extreme conditions can take a toll on their well-being.
According to Daily Emerald, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (GWF) is an organization dedicated to establishing accessible mental health resources for firefighters seeking support. Recognizing that each firefighter’s mental health needs may differ, GWF aims to develop a diverse range of resources tailored to individual requirements.
The Wildland Firefighter Foundation is another organization actively involved in creating mental health support systems for firefighters. Their mission is to offer both financial and emotional assistance to firefighters and their families impacted by critical incidents, both on and off duty, throughout the United States. While headquartered in Boise, Idaho, their services extend nationwide.
Prioritizing mental health resources and fostering a culture that values emotional well-being is essential in safeguarding firefighters’ mental health and ensuring they receive the support they deserve.
Significance of Post-fire Decontamination
Decontamination is the process of removing hazardous substances from the body and equipment. It is an important safety practice for firefighters, as they are exposed to a variety of hazardous substances, including fire, smoke, and hazardous materials.
There are two main types of decontamination for firefighters: gross decontamination and fine decontamination. Gross decontamination is the removal of large amounts of contaminants from the body and equipment. This is usually done using a hose to wash off the firefighter’s turnout gear and skin.
Fine decontamination is the removal of small amounts of contaminants from the body and equipment. This is usually done by using a wipe or a brush to remove the contaminants.
Decontamination is an important safety practice for firefighters, as it can help to prevent the spread of hazardous substances and the development of health problems. Firefighters should be trained in decontamination procedures and follow them whenever they are exposed to hazardous substances.
Support Systems and Resources Available for Firefighters
In addition to taking steps to protect themselves from hazards, firefighters can also benefit from support systems and resources that are available to them. These resources can help firefighters cope with the job’s stress, stay physically and mentally fit, and get help if they are injured or exposed to hazardous materials.
Some of the support systems and resources that are available to firefighters include:
- Peer support programs: These programs provide firefighters with a confidential space to talk about their experiences and to get support from other firefighters who understand what they are going through.
- Employee assistance programs: These programs offer a variety of services to help firefighters, such as counseling, financial assistance, and legal advice.
- Health and wellness programs: These programs provide firefighters with resources to help them stay physically and mentally fit, such as fitness classes, stress management workshops, and nutrition counseling.
- Hazardous materials exposure programs: These programs provide firefighters with information about the risks of exposure to hazardous materials and how to protect themselves.
Firefighters who are experiencing problems should reach out for help. Many resources are available to them, and they do not have to go through this alone.
The risks associated with firefighting have been extensively studied and acknowledged by experts in the field. However, every firefighter must have a clear understanding of how they can protect themselves from these known hazards.
By diligently adhering to safety protocols, including the use of appropriate PPE and ongoing training, firefighters can significantly enhance their safety while carrying out their essential duties. Each firefighter’s responsibility, in collaboration with their department and fellow team members, is to prioritize their well-being and take proactive measures to mitigate risks.
Doing so will help firefighters confidently face the challenges of their profession and ensure their safety throughout their firefighting career.