Firefighter Health Risks

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The greatest dangers firefighters face

Members of Minnesota’s fire service keep our communities safe, but they’re affected by serious health concerns including cardiac disease, emotional trauma and cancer at rates nearly twice as high as the general public.

Cardiovascular Health

Matthew Frantz, former Rice Lake fire chief, was sent home after responding to a call at 1 a.m. for a chimney fire because he wasn’t needed. Later that day, Matthew died of a heart attack at age 42.

Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of line-of-duty deaths in the fire service.

Firefighting strenuously challenges an individual’s strength and cardio-respiratory abilities. Even young and healthy firefighters suffer from hardened arteries and impaired heart function after just three hours of prolonged firefighting, according to a 2010 study from the Illinois Fire Service Institute. On top of the intense physical exertion, firefighters experience environmental strain from heat, anxiety and dehydration. Exposure to trauma can also boost inflammation in the body, a key risk factor for heart disease. Breathing in toxic fumes and particles during overhaul, exhaust from the apparatus bay and exposures during regular calls can adversely affect lung function, which is associated with an increased risk of heart failure.

Preventing a cardiac incident starts with a commitment to regular endurance and cardiorespiratory training. Embracing a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise and balanced nutrition can lower a firefighter’s risk of heart disease, on and off the job.

If you are an active Minnesota firefighter who was diagnosed with a heart attack, coronary artery disease or another major cardiac condition, you could be eligible for free Critical Illness benefits through MnFIRE.

Emotional Wellness

Superior Battalion Chief Erik Sutton died by suicide, just weeks after retiring.

An IAFF survey of 1,000 U.S. firefighters shows that at some point in respondents’ careers, 47% considered suicide, 19% made plans for a suicide attempt and 16% went through with a suicide attempt.

Firefighters experience much higher rates of mental illness than the general population – particularly in the areas of sleep disorders, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress injury and suicidal ideation/action. And too many firefighters are suffering in silence. Most firefighters can recall at least three traumatic events, but the failure to talk about those memories creates a dangerous feedback loop. We must end the stigma around talking about mental health, and ensure firefighters have an outlet for processing traumatic experiences.

Confidential peer support and mental health resources are available to Minnesota firefighters and their families for free through the MnFIRE Assistance Program.


In Albert Lea, in a department with 16 full-time firefighters, three developed cancer within one year.

Cancer is now the leading cause of death among firefighters nationwide.
Firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population.

The most frequently diagnosed cancers in firefighters are found in the digestive, respiratory and urinary systems, as well as orally, including the salivary glands and throat. Specific cancers related to carcinogen exposure – such as malignant mesothelioma – are more than twice as prevalent in firefighters than in the general population. The chance of lung cancer and leukemia diagnoses, and cancer-related death increases with the amount of time spent at fires.

Despite numerous statewide bans on fire retardant chemicals, the presence of existing synthetic materials increases the amount of smoke and toxic gas released during occupied structure fires. Dirty or ill-fitting protection gear can increase the risk of exposure to carcinogens, and prolonged exposure to the skin and lungs is especially dangerous. Recent studies have also shown that firefighter turnout gear contains Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) which have been linked to cancer and other serious health effects. To limit occupational cancer risk, the fire service must improve efforts around proper training, use, cleaning and maintenance of protective gear during all phases of firefighting.

If you are an active Minnesota firefighter who was diagnosed with cancer, you could be eligible for free Critical Illness benefits through MnFIRE.


We equip firefighters with the resources they need to prevent and treat these illnesses – and empower them to make good decisions about their health.

The Hometown Heroes Assistance Program is helping us fight back.

In our free trainings, we focus on the following pillars of a healthy lifestyle to help set hometown heroes up for success in the long run:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Getting quality sleep
  • Managing stress
  • Cultivating healthy relationships
  • Avoiding substance abuse
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