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WellBeing: June 2014

Firefighters have a lot to think about, and until recently their health was not necessarily a top priority.

June 2, 2014  By Elias Markou

Firefighters have a lot to think about, and until recently their health was not necessarily a top priority. Certainly the Internet and the availability of so much health news and information has brought firefighter health issues to the forefront. The adoption of the  International Association of Fire Fighters Health and Wellness Initiative by some Canadian departments has also raised awareness of health issues and, in particular, prevention of health problems ranging from cancer to heart problems to stress and sleep. Firefighter health is not a new issue; what is new is that firefighters are becoming empowered about their own health. The reason for this paradigm shift is irrelevant; what’s important is that the service needs healthy firefighters.  

In my 12 years of medical practice I have learned a thing or two about human patterns and behaviour. More and more firefighters are dealing with serious health concerns and many have turned to a combination of mainstream medicine and natural medicine to help to heal their injuries and overcome their health challenges. These natural approaches and treatments give firefighters more control over their own health. 

Many firefighters have missed the point about prevention and are now dealing in a very reactive way with health issues such as diabetes, injuries, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, auto-immune conditions and cancers. We know from the evidence-based research on health and disease that many conditions are preventable. This brings me to prevention – which is not a new idea for the fire service. The concept of fire prevention is deeply engrained in firefighters; we need to extrapolate this thinking and apply it to firefighter health.

The NFPA’s annual Fire Prevention Week is one of the greatest North American firefighter initiatives and is responsible for saving millions of lives over the last 100 years. Fire Prevention Week commemorates the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which was one of the most devastating fires of its time, killing up to 300 members of Chicago’s population. Today, fire services observe the anniversary as a way to educate people about the importance of fire safety.


To my mind, the fire service needs to come up with a way to demonstrate that firefighter health awareness is as important as fire prevention. A week within the fire service to educate firefighters about the importance of firefighter-specific preventable diseases could be of tremendous benefit to all firefighters and their families.

This proposed firefighter health awareness week could target two firefighter groups – those who have serious acute or chronic diagnosed conditions that need attention immediately, and healthy firefighters who have decided to embrace prevention to address their health. There are natural treatments and strategies for both of these groups that can help them achieve optimum health.

Those in the fire service are well aware that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of firefighters. Harvard researcher Stefanos N. Kales and his colleagues analyzed firefighter deaths for the 10 years between 1994 and 2004 and discovered the vast majority of on-duty firefighter deaths were attributed to heart conditions caused by preventable physical and toxic factors. The Harvard group reported that firefighters were between 12 and 136 times more likely to die of a heart attack while putting out a fire than  performing  non-emergency duties. These are staggering facts about a condition that has been proven to be very preventable and in which natural medicine can play a significant role.

I have been assessing and treating firefighters for 12 years as the chief medical officer for the Halton Hills Fire Department northwest of Toronto, and I oversee the health of 160 firefighters, plus firefighters who come to my private practice. More and more, I find that firefighters are becoming curious about natural remedies and therapies to treat their conditions or prevent the onset of the health concerns most common to this demographic. We will explore some of those remedies and therapies in future columns and explain how natural medicine can change firefighter health in a positive way.

Dr. Elias Markou is in private practice in Mississauga, Ont., and is the chief medical officer for the Halton Hills Fire Department. Markou was a firefighter for six years and is now a firefighter health expert and blogger who is regularly featured on television and radio and in print.

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