Protecting Those Who Protect Others

Author: IAFF Staff

November 10, 2017

Protection, defined in basic terms, means to cover or shield from exposure, injury, damage, or destruction. As a fire fighter or paramedic, you routinely risk your life to protect citizens and crew members. But what does it mean to protect yourself? Whether you are fighting fires or responding to a cardiac arrest, it’s equally important to safeguard your physical and mental health. To thrive today, tomorrow and well into retirement, it’s necessary to adapt an attitude of self-defense now.

Protect Your Mental Health

A strong mind and spirit is essential to function at your best. An estimated 23 percent of Americans experience a behavioral health problem in any given year. For fire fighters and paramedics, percentages may be even higher. What can you do today to protect your mental health?

  • Develop a daily outlet for stress. Find something that helps you unwind and do it daily. Even a few minutes of meditation, listening to music, or playing with your dog can go a long way to offset the cumulative impact of daily stress on the job. Using alcohol or drugs may seem like an effective outlet in the short term, but the toll on your health, relationships and job readiness will quickly add up.
  • Stay connected. The role of your support system in coping with personal and occupational stress cannot be overstated. While isolating may seem more comfortable in times of distress, good relationships with your crew, family and friends are essential to your longevity. Don’t wait until you are in crisis to develop supportive relationships.
  • Get moving. Brain researchers have argued that if there was a medication that could mimic the same cognitive and psychological benefits of regular exercise, it would be the most widely prescribed antidepressant in the world. According to research conducted by the Mayo Foundation for Education and Research (MFMER), exercise not only releases feel-good endorphins (chemicals in the brain), but has also been shown to reduce rumination, and improve confidence and socialization. Although fire fighters and paramedics have unique fitness needs, a daily exercise routine can start as a simple 20-minute walk.
  • Balance busy time with downtime. If you have ever responded to a traumatic call or suffered a major personal loss, you’ve probably found that staying busy helps ease your mind. While many fire fighters work two jobs, do charity work, or have other civic engagements, too much activity can also become an unhealthy strategy to avoid feeling anything. Try to schedule at least one day a week of downtime, where you can rest, process events and recuperate.
  • Assume personality responsibility for your well-being.  In their work “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, researchers Dennis S. Charney and Steven M. Southwick interviewed two decades of trauma survivors to better understand resilience in the face of severe trauma and adversity. While each survivor’s experiences varied widely, a common protective factor that emerged was the willingness to assume personal responsibility for their emotional well-being, no matter what. Only you can take charge of your wellness.
  • Challenge negative thinking. We all have a daily internal dialogue or “self-talk” that unconsciously impacts our mood, functioning, social interaction and behavior. Especially during daily stress or adversity, we are vulnerable to what cognitive behavioral psychologists call “cognitive distortions,” or flawed ways of thinking. Examples may include all-or-nothing thinking (looking at an experience as all good or bad), catastrophizing (jumping to the worst-case scenario) or labeling (assigning unhelpful labels to yourself or others, i.e. “I’m no good”). While learning to “just think positive” may be unrealistic, you can learn to catch and replace unhelpful thoughts with more balanced, rational ones.
  • Know when to ask for help. Fire fighters and paramedics face unique occupational stressors. Sometimes, reactions to stress can progress to more serious mental health problems, including major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders and co-occurring substance use disorders. Feeling persistently hopeless, agitated, withdrawn or apathetic toward daily life is not a normal part of working hard or getting older. These experiences may be symptoms of a treatable mental health condition that requires attention. Know the warning signs of mental illness and when it’s time to ask a peer, loved one or healthcare provider for help.

Protect Your Physical Health

While sound mental health is critical to your resilience as a fire fighter or paramedic, physical health is just as important. Every day, you face unique occupational hazards and health risks that can lead to impaired daily functioning, long-term disability and even death. Given the reality of such risks, what can you do today to protect yourself?

  • Focus on a healthy heart. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and this is also true for fire fighters. Sudden cardiac deaths account for 44 percent of the line-of-duty deaths among fire fighters, and usually occur in fire fighters with underlying cardiovascular disease. Steps to work toward a healthy heart include having your blood pressure checked regularly, avoiding saturated fats and processed foods, getting 30 minutes of exercise five days a week and quitting smoking.
  • Staying strong means moving smart. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), “The frequency of sprain and strain injuries from the fireground — minor, moderate or severe — poses a substantial challenge for fire fighter safety and health.” It takes only a few seconds to sprain your back, but the emotional and physical toll of chronic pain can linger for years. Instead of focusing on bulking up in the gym, protect yourself from musculoskeletal injuries by following an exercise program that focuses on flexibility, core abdominal strength and functional movement patterns.
  • Catch cancer early. Alarming rates of cancer among fire fighters have been well-studied and documented by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and other national institutions. Chronic exposure to heat, smoke and toxic flame retardants are likely to blame for higher levels of digestive, oral, respiratory and urinary cancers. The Wellness Fitness Initiative (WFI) Medical Committee at the International Association of Fire Fighters recommends fire fighters receive the following annual (unless otherwise indicated) screenings for early detection and treatment:
    • Prostate cancer screening (Starting at age 50)
    • Colorectal cancer screening (Starting at age 50)
    • Lung cancer screening (Starting at age 55 to 80 for current smokers or those who have quit in past 15 years)
    • Mammogram (Starting at age 40)
    • Pap smear (Every 3 years starting at age 21)

Talk to your healthcare provider about how you can play a proactive role in the early detection of cancer. Other recommended screenings include regular urinalysis, testicular self-examination and head-to-toe skin examination with dermatology follow-up appointments as needed.  

Protect Yourself From Contaminants  

Even with advances in cancer screenings, fire fighters must remain vigilant about protecting their skin and lungs when working in toxic environments. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), fire fighters are routinely exposed to known carcinogens, including arsenic, asbestos, diesel engine exhaust, formaldehyde and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) on the job. What can you do to prevent exposure?

  • Ensure your SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) fits properly
  • Wear your SCBA continuously during fire suppression through overhaul completion
  • Remove and contain turnout gear before entering your vehicle
  • Clean your PPE (including gloves, hood and helmet) immediately after a fire
  • DO NOT bring contaminated gear into your home, firehouse or vehicle
  • Wash clothing and shower immediately after a fire

No one says that being a fire fighter or paramedic is easy. Protecting your physical and mental health means serving your fellow fire fighters and community to your fullest potential. Be proactive by talking to your crew, loved ones or healthcare provider about adopting these changes today. And if you or someone you know is struggling with their behavioral health issues or substance abuse, call The IAFF Center of Excellence.

Medical Disclaimer: The IAFF Center of Excellence aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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