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More must be done to protect the health of our hometown heroes

As the former Marshall Fire Chief, I’ve witnessed firsthand the escalating crisis in the Minnesota fire service — one that is costing firefighters their lives. The high incidence of illness — particularly cardiac, cancer and mental health challenges — is alarming and requires an immediate response.

In January 2020, Howard Lake Fire Chief Daryl “Taddy” Drusch died of a heart attack just hours after responding to an emergency call. Fridley Fire Chief Mike Spencer also died from a cardiac line of duty-death in September 2020.

Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of firefighters nationwide and is by far the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths in the fire service. According to the International Association of Firefighters, more than 12 percent of all firefighters will develop heart disease at some point in their lives.

Steve Shapira, a retired St. Paul firefighter who fought more than 1,000 fires in 17 years, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma a few years ago. Following his diagnosis, Steve received four separate calls in a single day from other firefighters who were diagnosed with various forms of cancer. Those aren’t isolated instances.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, more than 68 percent of all firefighters will develop some form of cancer in their lifetimes. Firefighters experience higher rates of certain types of diagnoses and cancer-related deaths compared to the general U.S. population, according to a multi-year study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In April 2018, Superior Fire Department Battalion Chief Erik Sutton took his own life, just weeks after retiring. Sadly, his struggle with mental illness is not an isolated case, either. Those in the fire service experience much higher rates of mental health challenges than the general population — particularly in the areas of sleep disorders, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation/action.

Now, with COVID-19 making it harder for firefighters to return to the firehouse and spend time debriefing tough calls together, we can only expect the mental health scourge in our fire service to worsen.

Critical funding shortages throughout Minnesota departments make it difficult for fire service leaders to prioritize firefighter health measures and equipment, such as department-wide health checkups, gear-cleaning tools and mental health resources. Departments do as much as they can with limited resources, but there is no unified vision or commitment at the city or state level to prioritize fire service funding. Something must be done to reverse these harrowing statewide trends.

The Minnesota Firefighter Initiative (MnFIRE) launched in 2017 as an innovative and inclusive approach to unify and spark conversations among firefighters, their families, their communities and state policymakers regarding firefighter health, specifically cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health. MnFIRE was created to equip firefighters and the people who care about them with the resources they need to prevent and treat common illnesses among firefighters and empower them to make good decisions about their health.

MnFire is doing this in a couple of key ways. One of the biggest is offering firefighters across the state free MnFIRE Awareness trainings through June 2021. These trainings are taught by firefighters and other health experts and provide firefighters actionable tips on how to protect themselves from the three problems most commonly experienced by those in the fire service — cardiac, emotional trauma and cancer — so they can continue to protect others.

In addition to education, improving firefighter health outcomes requires further attention and investment at the state level. The Hometown Heroes Assistance Program bill is a landmark piece of legislation for firefighter health in Minnesota and it was just re-introduced to the Minnesota legislature. The bill, which has overwhelming bi-partisan support, promises to improve access to care for firefighters in need of treatment by providing supplemental health insurance and Employee Assistance Program resources for all of our state’s firefighters.

Firefighters are obligated to face hazards every day on behalf of those who can’t or won’t, which is why we must confront these threats facing Minnesota’s fire service — with the same bravery, determination and commitment they bring to fighting fires and protecting Minnesotans.

I urge fire service leaders to get their departments signed up for a free MnFIRE training, and for everyone to contact their state legislators and express their support for the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program.

— Marc Klaith is the retired Marshall Fire Department chief. To learn more about the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative, visit www.mnfireinitiative.com.

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