The iconic image of a soot-stained firefighter, charging toward danger without regard for his or her personal safety, defines how the public views the role and responsibility of the fire service. While the job itself requires a degree of selflessness, firefighters’ focus on others (at the expense of their own health and safety) has created an emerging crisis – one that is costing Minnesota firefighters their lives.
The high incidence of illness – particularly cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health imbalance – among our brothers and sisters in the Minnesota fire service is alarming and requires an immediate response.
Consider these troubling statistics:
- Heart disease is the number-one killer of firefighters nationwide and is far and away the leading cause of line-of- duty deaths in the fire service.
- Compared to the general public, firefighters have increased rates of emotional distress, including sleep disorders, depression, substance abuse, PTSD and suicidal ideation.
- Firefighters have a 30-percent greater risk of getting cancer than the general population, primarily due to carcinogen exposure on the job.
Unfortunately, the most alarming statistic of all shows why there is so much work to be done: Minnesota ranks 45th nationwide in per capita fire service spending*. It’s no surprise why firefighter health and safety continues to suffer due to a lack of public awareness and attention. Departments do what they can with limited resources, butt here is no unified vision or commitment from cities or from the state to prioritize fire service funding.
We are committed to reversing the trend of illness, disease and death, but we can’t do it alone. That’s why we created the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative: Gearing Up for Health – an advocacy campaign to equip firefighters and the people who care about them with the resources they need to prevent and treat the common illnesses among firefighters and empower them to make good decisions about their health.
We must educate fire service professionals, their families and state decision-makers about these dangers and activate the steps we all need to take to help protect the health and lives of our fellow firefighters. We want to make sure firefighters have long, productive careers and healthy retirements. We want to assure their families that the firefighters they love won’t become another statistic.
Investing in people is the biggest expense and the highest priority for fire departments statewide. It’s time Minnesotans took action to protect this priceless investment in our fire service professionals’ collective health, safety and quality of life. By creating a sustainable resource for every Minnesota fire department – equipped with useful tools for action and advocacy – we are motivating fire service champions and elevating our state as an example for the nation.
We understand this is a tall order. Minnesota’s fire service is fragmented – not one department is the same as another – with divergent needs and priorities between urban and rural, volunteer and career and small and large departments. But we are united in our desire to save our fellow firefighters’ lives and ensure that everyone comes home to their loved ones at the end of every shift and the end of every career.
Firefighters are obligated to face hazards every day on behalf of those who can’t or won’t. This is why we must confront the health and wellness threats facing Minnesota’s fire service – with the same bravery, determination and commitment we bring to firefighting.
Our state’s firefighters have always run toward danger and put others’ lives above their own. It’s time for all of us to commit to protecting Minnesota’s firefighters, both on and off the job.