During the session Promoting A Culture Of Safety And Fitness To Prevent Cancer, Heart Disease, and Injuries in Boston Firefighters at NFPA’s Conference & Expo (C&E), Dr. Michael Hamrock, a former firefighter and medical director for the Boston Fire Department (BFD), made an impressive case for prioritizing firefighter health and safety.
A primary care and addiction medicine specialist at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood, Hamrock answered questions about the toll that firefighter cancer, cardiovascular issues, occupational exposure, behavioral health, and orthopedic injuries are taking on the nation’s more than 700,000 volunteer firefighters and 300,000 career firefighters; and spoke about the tremendous price that firefighters are paying for their service.
Hamrock, working with BFD, local researchers and national organizations, advocates for firefighter health and wellness with an emphasis on education, cultural change, and strong leadership. He addressed “preventable” injuries and illnesses; and shared some troubling statistics including:
- Firefighters in Boston contract cancer 2.5 times more often than regular citizens. BFD learns about a new cancer diagnosis every 3 weeks and had 20 diagnoses in total last year. Four active duty deaths from cancer occurred last year and even more are experiencing advanced stage malignancies right now. Since 1990, there have been more than 190 cancer deaths within BFD.
- Firefighters in Boston average 3 orthopedic injuries per alarm – largely due to repetitive stress from fire duties, restrictive bunker gear and improper weight training techniques. Issues are exasperated when firefighters wait too long to seek treatment and return to active duty before being fully healed.
- Boston firefighters are diagnosed with acute coronary events 2.5 times more than the average Bostonian. They experience an acute coronary syndrome (ACS) every three weeks. Additionally, nearly 80% have elevated blood pressure, and yet only 30% are being seen by their primary physician and getting physicals.
- Firefighting attracts risk-takers. They are known to adopt self-medicated behaviors to “cope” with witnessing human trauma, suffering and deaths. They may have PTSD symptoms from prior military service, subscribe to a firefighter lifestyle including alcohol-centered activities, and experience enabling behavior by colleagues and superiors. Fire officers need to recognize the warning signs of substance abuse, depression and anxiety; and address the issues head on.
To underscore the importance of improving firefighter health and lifestyle practices, Hamrock also shared case studies and a primary care letter with recommended exams, labs and screening tests. He consolidated his observations and best practices into a list of 10 ways to improve health and safety in your fire department.
Hamrock and the City of Boston’s top down wellness strategy includes educating and drilling firefighters on safety measures, holding officers more accountable, encouraging comprehensive physicals and cancer screenings, and better protecting firefighters from toxins. Firefighters at different firehouses throughout the city are embracing the BFD-O2X Human Performance Program – a system that encourages line firefighters and department brass to train like tactical athletes, subscribe to yearly physicals, eat healthier, increase hydration, change lifestyle habits, and recognize the importance of a good night’s sleep.
BFD’s awareness efforts, attention to occupational hazards, and commitment to developing a fitness-focused culture is working – and firefighters in Boston and beyond are a lot healthier and safer because of it.