Authors, Features, Marinucci

Out of My Mind: Firefighter Health and Safety

By Richard Marinucci

There is no doubt that there have been many changes in the fire service in recent years. Occasionally I get a chance to talk to “old-timers”—those in my generation and age bracket. One individual was a recent retiree and surprised me when he said firefighter safety was the biggest difference between the time he joined and when he left. This was a general statement and, being curious, I asked a few questions. As executive director of the FDSOA I wanted some feedback on why he considered this such a big issue. He said it was because of the changes in the equipment. This included everything from apparatus to protective clothing. He did not mention training.

Thinking about the discussion, I was impressed that this issue was considered so important. Obviously there has been much effort to engineer safety into the job. Through improvements initiated by manufacturers, organizations such as the FDSOA, IAFF and IAFC, NFPA standards, OSHA requirements, legal action, and the efforts of fire service professionals who are passionate about leaving things better than they found them, there is no doubt that firefighters are better protected than ever. From a hardware perspective only, firefighters are better protected than ever before, and this protection has had a significant effect on improving the safety environment in which firefighters do their work.

While I can’t argue with my friend’s assessment, I can only think about the need to continue the efforts as there are still too many cases of preventable injuries and deaths. To improve operations and safety, there must be improved training and education that promotes proper service delivery and appropriate risk taking. Again, there are many organizations and individuals who commit tremendous energy in this area. Yet, progress is slow in some departments. One can only speculate as to why specifically as each department has its own challenges. It can be financial, leadership, apathy, competence, and/or complacency that limits the progress that needs to be made. Too many firefighters are not aware of what can or should be done to improve training that will lead to better safety for their own benefit while still allowing for them to do the job that they signed up for.

On a related note, I was speaking to a firefighter with whom I worked. He is getting closer to retirement and we were discussing the challenges of the job. In his own humorous way, he posed a question to me. He asked if there was a way to test the air in the SCBAs he was using. According to him, the air wasn’t lasting as long as it used to last!! It was his way of admitting that as he has aged, that he is not as physically capable as he was in his younger days. We all know that time takes its toll and those who want to be most successful must work hard to maintain their physical condition. Even still, there are things that are inevitable. My friend works hard at staying in shape, but there is no fountain of youth.

This is a good reminder to all that everyone in the business must commit to health and wellness—not only so they can do the best they can but also for their own wellbeing. Heart attacks and stress-related events continue to be the number one cause of LODDs. The best equipment in the world will not change this. It will take individual commitments to improve fitness. Organizations can help by creating the proper climate and supporting physicals, exercise, and good eating habits. But in the end, it is the firefighter who must take personal responsibility.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.