Firefighters embrace health precautions

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alpena firefighter Michael Torok displays some of the gear worn by firefighters to fight off the health-endangering effects of smoke.

ALPENA — In November last year, firefighter Michael J. Lubig of Detroit died in the line of duty. The cause of death was ruled to be overexertion or strain while performing his duties.

He was 46.

Six other Michigan firefighters have died since 2015, one from lung cancer, one from blunt-force trauma, and four from heart attacks.

In their goldenrod coats, firefighters appear to many to be the epitome of strength and resilience.

Inside those coats, however, are men and women in a life-threatening occupation, battling not only flames but the twin killers of cancer and heart disease.

The stresses of a firefighter’s life, combined with the dangerous elements to which they are exposed, create a high risk of death from heart attack, premature heart disease, or a number of cancers that are proven to be linked to the chemicals and toxins encountered in a fire situation. Advanced post-fire cleaning tactics, health screenings, and psychological care are required to maintain the health and safety of our firefighters.

The zero-to-60 culture of a firefighter’s life is hard on the heart, Chief Bill Forbush of the Alpena Fire Department explained. When an alarm sounds, the men and women of the department respond in an instant, stopping whatever they are doing — including sleeping — to be at work in seconds.

As a result, heart-related issues, and especially sudden cardiac arrest, are one of the two primary causes of death among firefighters. Even 30-something firefighters with no pre-existing heart disease or even risk factors can suddenly experience heart difficulties or even go into cardiac arrest because of their occupation.

In March, a fire at Clark’s Coin Laundry in Alpena sent two firefighters to the hospital, one from a non-life-threatening injury sustained on the scene of the fire, and one because of heart troubles.

Already in 2019, 39 firefighters have died across the country. Of those, five were from heart attacks, and 26 were from various forms of cancer.

According to a study by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters have double the risk of being diagnosed with mesothelioma or testicular cancer than the general population, and have a 62% higher risk of getting esophageal cancer.

Firefighters also have a higher-than-average chance of being diagnosed with leukemia, myeloma, or colorectal, kidney, bladder, prostate, or brain cancers, all with proven links to the complex mix of chemicals found in smoke at the scene of a fire.

In the past, when houses were built of wood and steel, fires were more common but less deadly, Forbush said. Fire codes and precautions have drastically reduced the number of fires, but each fire is exponentially more dangerous.

The plastics and electrical equipment prevalent in homes and businesses contain carcinogens and toxins which, when burned, become airborne and are absorbed into firefighters’ bodies through inhalation and skin absorption. Any place where sweat is heavy becomes a conduit, pores working both ways to pull dangerous chemicals into the body.

Fire departments have learned to take precautions with their gear after fighting a fire. Immediately after a fire is resolved, firefighting gear is hosed down thoroughly to remove the large contaminates. Any exposed skin is swabbed off, particularly around the neck, upper chest, and any place where soot and contaminates settle.

Turnout gear — the protective jacket, boots, and other safety attire — is removed quickly at the site of the fire.

Once at the station, an oversized, specialized washing machine called a gear extractor is set to work cleaning away as much contamination as possible while protecting the integrity of the fire-retardant fabrics. Only last year, the Alpena Municipal Council allocated $11,000 for the new machine, recognizing its importance to firefighter safety.

City firefighters are willing to put safety before a perceived code of toughness, according to Lt. Andy Marceau, Alpena Fire Department community risk reduction officer. Once they see the statistics, they are willing to prioritize their health.

“They say, ‘Wow, I don’t want that stuff, I want to live a long life,'” Marceau said.

While cancers and heart problems are highly probable among firefighters, firefighter-specific medical screenings are not yet covered by their health insurance. The annual physical that is covered is no more than the routine maintenance offered to anyone and is not likely to detect the serious medical complications those in the profession can expect, at least not in time to catch them.

The firefighters’ union is actively trying to acquire more adequate medical coverage for their members, according to Marceau, a change that would cost $285 per firefighter per year. The total of nearly $10,000 for the city department is a large number, Marceau conceded.

“But, if it saves a life, it’s worth it,” Forbush said.

Along with physical effects of a firefighter’s life, psychological stresses take their toll. In America, more firefighters die of suicide than in the line of duty, a sad statistic indicative of the emotional difficulty of the job.

Having to give 100% instantly, 10 seconds after being at rest, produces mental as well as physical stress, Forbush said. As does the state of constant vigilance during their 24-hour shifts. Emotional trauma from the difficult, sometimes heartbreaking experiences encountered on the job can produce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The city provides Critical Incident Stress Management teams for those in public safety positions. Firefighters, first responders, and law enforcement officers who experience a traumatic incident are able, quickly — and without fear of being stigmatized, Forbush and Marceau said — to meet with counselors from Community Mental Health and peers from their field who understand the trauma and can help define appropriate ways to respond. The process is being used more frequently, along with an employee assistance counseling program offered to all city employees.

“As a profession, we’re starting to see that we’re really not all that macho, we’re just like everybody else, and we can use a hand, too, sometimes,” the fire chief said.

Heart trouble and cancers make up about half of all firefighter deaths, Forbush said. Each year firefighters are killed by being struck by a vehicle while at an emergency scene, distracted drivers not taking proper precautions to keep those on the roadside safe. Firefighters have adopted the practice of parking a heavy piece of equipment, often a large fire truck, behind the scene of a car crash to protect those working from oncoming traffic.

Of course, fire itself creates danger, each year killing firefighters who are wounded or struck while actively fighting a blaze.

Every fire requires a risk/benefit analysis, Forbush said. Where a person is trapped inside a burning building, firefighters go in, despite dangers to themselves.

Risk a lot, save a lot, the firefighters say.

“If there’s a life to be saved, we’ll risk ours to get it,” Forbush said.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.