Firefighter Health: 7 Steps for Protecting Yourself on the Job

By:  Robert AvsecWoman FF Pair

You are responsible for the most important component of firefighter safety:  your body.  Your department can put in place the best standard operating guidelines (SOGs), provide you with the best protective equipment, and give you the best training possible, and none of those things will have as much impact as what you do or don’t do for yourself.

Sun City West FrieAs we prepare to turn the calendar to 2014, here’s a list of New Year’s Resolutions that every firefighter should commit themselves to doing in the new year…and for many years to come.

1.         Get an annual health assessment completed by a physician.  If your department presently offers this to you, make sure you get it done annually.  If it does not, make your own appointment with your primary physician.  One of the key elements of the new Affordable Care Act is that preventative services, such as annual health assessments, must be available at no cost to the policy holder.

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2.         Improve your physical lifestyle.  Improve your overall physical condition and maintain it by:  eating a healthy diet; get adequate sleep; and workout daily.

3.         Stay hydrated.  Your body needs water to “do its thing.”  At a moments notice, you can be engaged in a level of physical activity greater than that of a world-class athlete.  Make sure you start your day properly hydrated and stay that way.  Easy way to check your hydration level?  Check the color of your urine output!

4.         Wear your firefighting protective clothing according to your department’s SOG.  Nobody should have to tell you when and wear to use your gear.  You are your personal safety officer.  Always check your gear and that of your buddy before entering a hazard area.

5.         Don’t breathe smoke.  Following your department’s SOG for SCBA use should be your baseline, and only that, a baseline.  Portable gas monitors are useful in monitoring air quality in the hazard area, e.g., during overhaul, but they only monitor for the presence of four gases at most.  Even top chemists and physicists don’t know all of the “ethyl-methyl-bad-stuff” that is present in the combustion of today’s synthetic building materials and building furnishings.  Protect yourself:  If you’re in the hazard area, wear your SCBA.

6.         Wear hearing protection.  Running fire apparatus, portable power equipment, generators and such are just a few of the “players” in a game that’s ruining your ability to hear.  And that’s just on the emergency scene.  Think about all the noise sources around the fire station that are doing the same thing:  lawn care equipment, power equipment, preventative maintenance on power equipment carried on the apparatus, etc.  Carry personal hearing protection, e.g., foam ear plugs, on your person at all times while on duty and use them without fail.

Firefighters are a group of workers whose hearing conservation must receive more attention. These workers routinely are exposed to high levels of noise (Fire and Emergency Service, 1992) and awareness of hearing protection procedures must be raised. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is working toward solutions for this group of workers by developing hearing protection devices for their specific needs.[1]

7.         Wear eye protection.  Both the emergency scene and the fire station environments are fraught with potential hazards that can cause a significant eye injury.  The popular Bourke flip-down helmet-mounted eye shields, aka, “New York-style”, do not provide adequate eye protection nor do the full face shields mounted on polycarbonate or Kevlar helmets.  Those types of eye protection only protect from objects or debris “coming at you.”  Good eye protection means wrap-around protection that helps prevent objects or debris from entering the eye from other directions.

This is certainly not an all-inclusive list by any means, but we humans have difficulty making changes when we have too many to think about.  Focus on these seven and see if you’re not in a better position for a long and productive career of service as a firefighter this time next year.

What do you think should have made the “short list”?


[1] Meyer. S.E. [Internet] Audiology Today. Hearing Conservation for Firefighters. Nov/Dec 2012, pp. 18-24. Available from: http://www.audiology.org/resources/audiologytoday/archives/Pages/default.aspx

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

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Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.