Fire fighting has long been considered one of the most dangerous professions in America. For years, the dangers of fire fighting were accepted as just 'part of the job'. Decrepit buildings with no fire protection systems, limited and ineffective personal protective equipment, and rudimentary organizational practices on the fireground contributed to the hazardous aspects of the job. Over the past 40 years the fire service has made great strides in legislating mandatory fire protection systems in new construction. Our protective equipment, particularly our air supply, or self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is vastly superior to anything available in the 1960's. The introduction of the Incident Command System and other built-in safeguards to organize fire fighting efforts has made fire fighter safety a priority. But the bottom line is always going to be the frailty of the human body. We can only subject it to so much abuse, heat, and stress. The number one killer of fire fighters across America is not smoke, fire, or structural collapse. The number one killer is cardiovascular disease.
For a variety of reasons, fire fighters are prone to heart attacks. Whether it is the amount of work, the stress levels, or the combination of heat and monumentally hard tasks, there is something about fire fighting that induces cardiac events. Roughly 100 fire fighters die in the line of duty every year in the US. At least half of those deaths are caused by heart attacks.
As the Chief Safety Officer for Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R), I have concentrated my efforts on enhancing fire fighter safety any way I can. We educate members to avoid contracting communicable diseases when treating patients. We teach fire fighters how to lift properly to avoid back injuries. We look for cutting-edge procedures, equipment, gear, and policies that attempt to make our job safer.
Protecting the health and wellness of fire fighters is also a top priority. Several years ago, PF&R was on the cutting edge of an international program called the Wellness-Fitness Initiative (WFI) when it recruited several peer fitness trainers from its own ranks. We applied for federal grants and received money to purchase new exercise equipment. Now there is a renewed push from within our ranks to take the Health and Wellness Program to the next level, engage our membership and peer fitness trainers to make them aware that PF&R supports efforts to prevent cardiovascular disease, and ultimately a change in our culture that places emphasis on our wellness and ensures we look out for one another. Only when we are well-trained and fit for the job can we effectively protect you, the citizens of Portland.
February 2, 2010