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Fire IQ: October 2010

If you’ve read my previous columns, then you know I’m passionate about the fire service and firefighter safety, and survival in particular.

October 18, 2010
By Peter Hunt

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If you’ve read my previous columns, then you know I’m passionate about the fire service and firefighter safety, and survival in particular.

Typically, I write about strategy, tactics, tools, equipment, policies, or anything that firefighters can use to improve their chances of surviving in a business with so many inherent risks.

Although I truly hope not, I suspect that your department, like mine, has buried far too many friends and colleagues who have prematurely succumbed to job-related cancers, heart attacks and strokes in recent years.

Not only have I attended too many funerals in the last 10 years, but several of my friends have discovered health problems that we didn’t even know existed just a generation ago – for example, hydrogen cyanide and heavy metal exposure.

On a personal note, one of my closest colleagues, who has only ever been a firefighter, was recently tested for heavy metals and told that his levels were off the charts. Normally, this news would be alarming; however, treatment (chelation therapy) is typically successful in lowering these levels in most patients to close to normal ranges. In my friend’s case, however, subsequent tests also showed that his liver is too badly damaged to accept traditional treatments. We’re anxiously waiting to see what alternative treatments exist to alleviate his symptoms.

Not every health issue affecting firefighters is attributable to workplace exposure. But with presumptive cancers leading the way and the risks of hydrogen cyanide clearly established, how many other illnesses directly linked to firefighting will emerge in the future?

So, at the age of 51, and with 31 years of service in the suppression division, I find myself – possibly like some of you – questioning my health and wellness, and wondering if I’m still fit enough to be a firefighter in an ever-worsening toxic work place.

Since job-related health and wellness is not one of my areas of expertise, I turned to my friend and colleague Dr. Scott Miller, DC, of the Ottawa Fire Service, for advice.

Miller, a 21-year firefighting veteran, who is also a United States- and Canadian-board-certified doctor of chiropractic, is passionate about firefighter wellness, fitness, safety and survival and has created a website that I believe every member of the fire service needs to see.

As a result of his focus on wellness programs in recent years, Miller has seen firsthand how such programs can reduce sick leave and injuries through early detection and prevention.

Fitasafirefighter.ca is a comprehensive, easily understandable synopsis of several fire service wellness initiatives (IAFF/IAFC, NFPA, Phoenix) that educates firefighters and their physicians and also provides all the tools necessary to develop a wellness program in your own jurisdiction.

Miller provides visitors to his site with a letter of introduction to present to their doctor, which outlines all the risks associated with firefighting – risks that many doctors are not aware of – and follows that up with a comprehensive medical checklist that will evolve with the emergence of new information.

While I thought I was relatively well informed about the risks facing firefighters today, I was shocked by how little I knew.

Thankfully, after navigating Miller’s site, I have a much better understanding of those risks, the importance of medical and fitness evaluations, and the critical need to commit to safe practices in the workplace along with a healthy lifestyle.

While it’s vital to ensure that veteran firefighters are educated in the need for early detection and treatment of job-related health issues, it’s equally important to ensure that the next generation of firefighters is raised in a culture of safety that boldly presumes to eliminate many existing and emerging risks through strict compliance to safe work practices (PPE, SCBA and decon, for example).

But detection and treatment are not enough. Miller’s research leaves no doubt that fire departments that have established fitness and wellness initiatives have realized huge financial savings and incalculable benefits through the improved quality of life of their members. What price can you put on preventing a heart attack or stroke, the early detection of the variety of cancers attacking firefighters or the debilitating affects of heavy metals accumulating in vital organs?

Miller reminded me that 50 per cent of North American line-of-duty deaths are a result of heart attacks and strokes, and stressed the importance of understanding how the heart works. He has created an innovative and informative way of explaining heart function that every firefighter can relate to and understand.

Many fire departments lack the financial resources or the will to establish a wellness program despite the obvious benefits to workers and employers. If you serve in one of these jurisdictions, there are two things you and your colleagues must commit to: First, immediately educate yourself and your doctor about the risks associated with fire fighting and take responsibility for your own fitness and wellness. Second, lobby your association, chief, council or community so they understand the health and financial benefits of implementing a wellness program and insist that they do so.

I strongly encourage you to visit www.fitasafirefighter.ca and tell a friend you care about to check it out too. I have no doubt that this firefighting doctor’s work will save lives.


Peter Hunt, a 30-year veteran of the fire service is a captain in the Ottawa Fire Department’s suppression division. He can be reached at  peter.hunt@rogers.com


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