Structured Health/Fitness Program, Safe Operations Critical to Firefighters’ Survival

The U.S. Fire Administration and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) have completed a study of emerging occupational health and safety issues in the volunteer fire and emergency services. The report, Emerging Health and Safety Issues in the Volunteer Fire Service, provides information on initiatives, programs and strategies for reducing fatalities among volunteer firefighters.

Developed with a questionnaire asking about personal health, well-being, and safety practices distributed to a study population of 364 firefighters, of whom 149 were career firefighters, 165 were volunteers, and 50 indicated they were both volunteer and career. The results allowed NVFC and USFA to identify several health and safety issues. These emerging issues include health-related factors such as cardiovascular disease, nutrition, physical activity levels, alcohol and tobacco use, diabetes and stress. Additionally, several safety issues were identified, including safety measures used by fire departments, PPE usage and policies, and vehicle safety issues.

Personal Health

  • 25 percent were told by a doctor or nurse that they have high blood pressure.
  • 40 percent were told by a doctor or nurse that their measured blood cholesterol level was high.
  • 63 percent do not meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for leisure-time or physical activity, which is 20 to 30 minutes at least three times per week.

Personal Well-Being

  • 8 percent reported driving under the influence of alcohol or riding with a driver under the influence of alcohol.

Personal Safety

  • 11 percent indicated that they were not assigned or did not wear personal protective equipment.
  • 6 percent considered their fire vehicles and how they operate the vehicles to be unsafe.
  • 12 percent indicated their department did not employ a Safety Officer.
  • 18 percent indicated that aggressive firefighting actions are taken by their organization when minimal potential for saving lives or property exists.
  • 45 percent indicated poor training as their primary safety concern.
  • 25 percent indicated over-aggressiveness as their primary safety concern.

Based on the findings, in order to decrease the number of sudden cardiac deaths and the onset of other chronic diseases in firefighters, as well as to ensure the safety of our Nation’s first responders, it is imperative to institute a comprehensive health, wellness and safety initiative.

There are an estimated 823,950 volunteer firefighters in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Association's report "U.S. Fire Department Profile through 2006." More than 70 percent of the fire departments in the United States are all-volunteer, and 17 percent are mostly volunteer or combination departments. With the vast majority of fire departments and their communities dependent on volunteer firefighters, there is a critical need for effective health and safety programs to protect these volunteers from preventable injury, illness and death. "The volunteer fire service is an integral part of our nation's Homeland Security," said U.S. Fire Administrator Greg Cade. "The USFA was pleased to work in partnership with the NVFC to develop focused initiatives to support the health and safety of America's volunteer firefighters."

"The volunteer fire service has distinct issues related to health and safety that need to be specifically addressed," said Philip C. Stittleburg, NVFC Chairman. "We lose too many volunteer firefighters in line-of-duty deaths."

Further information about this study can be found under the Research section at www.usfa.dhs.gov.

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