It has been a difficult start to 2018 for the Fire Service. In less than one week, we lost two of our comrades. On January 3rd, Wamego KS Firefighter John Randle succumbed to his injuries suffered from a fall while returning apparatus to service. And on January 6th, Philadelphia Lt. Matt LeTourneau died as a result of a structural collapse while fighting a row house fire. We mourn their loss along with their families, friends, colleagues and the entire fire service and their sacrifice shall never be forgotten.
There will be those who will hold to the belief that this is how most firefighters die in the line of duty; accidents that just cannot be predicted or avoided. They could not be further from the truth and the statistics prove that. The recently released the LODD report for 2017. Last year, ninety-three of our comrades responded to their final alarm. However, of that number, only one firefighter's death was directly attributed to a fire. One! That equals less than one-percent (<1%) of those ninety-nine deaths! While exact cause of death determinations are still forthcoming for some, once again, it appears that most of these line-of-duty deaths were due to some form of preventable health issue.
Now the question is, how do we define preventable health issues? Personally, I break them down into two groups, the known and the unknown.
A. The Known Group: This group consists of issues that you are aware of, obesity, high blood pressure, elevated unhealthy cholesterol levels, chest pains, shortness of breath, etc. It is important to note that a number of these can also fall into the "unknown" group. However, if you are a firefighter, career or volunteer and you have had any type of a physical exam in the last 12-24 months, you know if you have been diagnosed with any of medical conditions. However, the question is, "Have you done anything to mitigate this/these issue(s)? If your answer is, "No," I'll cover that in a moment.
B. The Unknown Group: As stated above, many of the conditions stated in Group A, may still be unknown to you, except perhaps for obesity. There is NO way around that one! On the other hand, if you have not exhibited any of the common symptoms of the other issues, you may not know that you have it. Add to this list are the often asymptomatic in the initial stages of forms of cancer, certain organ ailments, bone and muscle issues and others. While a fair number of these might be detected in with a complete physical, some can still go unnoticed until they rear their ugly heads. When that happens, that will usually force you into seeking medical care.
Now, let's return to the members of the first group, Known Issues, but who have decided, for some reason that makes senses only to each of them, that they have decided not to do anything about it. That now places you into the, "Domino" group. What is the "Domino" group?
Most of us have seen demonstrations on a television show, where some person has set up some 3,000 dominoes on the stage floor. From the camera's angle, all we see are the little, black tiles standing up, but there does not appear to be any shape or form to them. Then, the performer bends down and gently tips the first domino down and one-by-one, they all begin to fall over. However, it is not until the view changes from a floor camera to one that is vertically mounted and focused down, do we see the fallen dominoes now for the image of the U.S. Flag, or the Statue of Liberty or some other image.
Now, if you know you have a medical issue, especially one that could impede your ability to perform your assigned duties on the fireground, and not sought out medical attention, YOU are first “first domino!” However, let’s try to understand why someone would do that and talk about the “domino” in a moment.
There are only two reasons that come to mind. The first is that you are concerned that if your employer learns you have a medical job, you will be taken off active duty, maybe assigned to a desk job (Heaven forbid!) and all your colleagues would know that “there is something wrong with you!” See, some of you are nodding your head in agreement!
The second reason, which might, just might be considered selfless instead of selfish, is that you do not want your family to worry. Sorry – that one won’t fly. Why? Because would you rather they find out that you collapsed on the fireground, in the station, or you never woke up the morning after your shift? And that first reason up above is because you’re all about your ego, your “cred.”
YOU fall into the “Domino” category because if you go down on the fireground, during a rescue or during any other aspect of your job, including a training exercise, you will “knock over” every other member of your department on-scene and back at the station, as well as your family and friends. Their lives will change because of your ego, bravado or the unwarranted fear of letting others know that you have a medical condition.
Do you really believe that every firefighter who advised their department that they had high blood pressure or high cholesterol were placed on restricted duty? Really? Besides being a firefighter, you’re probably at least an EMT, as well, right? So, where is all your medical knowledge? HBP, elevated cholesterol and a myriad of other preventable health issues are easily managed by easy-to-take medication and proper nutrition. Not only that, but most of them are not “life-sentences.” I had HBP for seven years, took my medication and now, I’ve been off my meds and have had no HBP for almost ten years! I’ve known firefighters with Diabetes, who remained the job without any problems.
Sure, there will be medical issues that occur that we have no control over unless we seek medical care. And yes, sometimes, even the best medical care won’t win the battle. But that doesn’t mean to you have let yourself fall victim to those medical conditions that can easily be managed, because of a false fear of the unknown. Do yourself, your family, your friends, your crew and your citizens a favor, take care of yourself. Don’t be a statistic of 2018. Be a healthy, contributing firefighter!
Steve Greene is the president of 5-Alarm Task Force Corp., a 501 (c) (3), non-profit company and the Creator/Host of the "5-Alarm Task Force" podcast.