PITTSFORD — Two national experts on firefighter safety were at the Vermont Fire Academy Saturday sharing what they know with leaders in the state’s firefighting and emergency services community.
“The entire class today is focused on firefighter health and safety,” Chief Craig Haigh, a 36-year veteran of the Hanover Park, Illinois, Fire Department, and a field staff instructor at the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute. “It’s looking at it not from the standpoint of, we’re going to buy you new protective equipment or we’re going to give you a different type of fire trucks, it’s an analysis of what actually goes on inside of the body physiologically when we expose the body to the job we do.”
Teaching alongside him was Denise Smith, professor of exercise science at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, and a research scientist at the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute.
“I went through and detailed the cardiovascular strain during firefighting,” said Smith. “Surprisingly to many civilians, sudden cardiac events are the leading cause of line of duty deaths among firefighters. It’s about five times as high as burn or asphyxiation fatalities. And it’s been that way for many years. Our research is really focused on understanding what places a firefighter at risk for having a sudden cardiac event while fighting a fire, and then what are the strategies to lessen that risk.”
Rutland City Fire Chief Jim Larsen used to be on Haigh’s department, their connection being one reason Haigh and Smith were invited to teach the class “Reducing Firefighter Risk: Pre-Incident, During, and Post-Incident.”
Larsen said he and Michael Skaza, training program coordinator at the Vermont Fire Academy, will take what’s learned in the class to the Rutland County Mutual Aid group, an entity consisting of most Rutland County fire departments and EMS services.
“I know our discussions are to work with Regional Ambulance to develop a county-wide policy and procedure on how we’re going to implement what we’re learning today, and to continue to get the information out as to why we’re going to develop this, and what the expected goal is, which is to reduce injuries and death,” said Larsen.
A big and often overlooked danger to firefighters, police, and EMS workers are the health problems they can develop from prolonged exposure to the stress from their jobs, be they physical or mental strains.
“The purpose of the course is to build awareness in the Vermont firefighting community of the need to have established rehab protocol for firefighters, police officers, EMS workers, that are working at emergency incidents,” said Larsen. “There’s an incredible amount of strain on the human body as a result of firefighting, which contributes to injuries and death in the United States. By building awareness and by building programs to address that, we can reduce the line of duty injuries and deaths.”
It’s important that the public be made aware of the exact nature of the hazards firefighters and others in their line of work face so they can get public support when needed, said Smith. One overlooked danger is the substances firefighters and those responding to fires are exposed to.
“You have firefighters exposed to environmental stress, but they’re also exposed to the products of combustion, the smoke and particulate matter which contains many known or suspected carcinogens,” said Smith.
These substances aren’t easily removed from firefighters’ clothing and gear. Doing so properly requires expensive washing equipment called “extractors” which aren’t cheap.
“One of the problems that folks are really encountering in their communities as they try to address the problem is, communities are saying, ‘Why do you need a $10,000 washer?’ Because that’s what necessary to decrease their risk to the substances they encounter,” she said.
Haigh said much of what he and Smith are teaching is imparted on young firefighters, but it’s only been happening in recent years. Much of their work is focused on veterans who weren’t taught this. The challenge, he said, is showing people how to make it part of their established routines.
According to Skaza, several state fire instructors attended Saturday’s class. Those people will instill what they learn in those they teach. Besides Rutland City and Regional Ambulance, fire departments from Thetford, Bristol, Londonderry, Orwell, Castleton, West Rutland, Barre, Williston, Proctorsville and Starksboro attended.