Safety & Health

Firefighter Health and Safety: Something to Make You Think

It’s the little things that matter

By Nancy Kirsch Naylis

Firefighters are well aware of how to take care of their health and how to keep safe, but there are some things we can do to help keep ourselves a little safer while on the fireground or during a drill.

Protect Your Body

Every firefighter should start the day drinking water and continue drinking during your entire duty shift. You have to keep hydrated or you could suffer dehydration in the blink of an eye, and when it hits you, it takes you down fast. If your fire company provides water, make sure it is on the apparatus or bring your own. You can’t always rely on your town’s ambulance corps to be in attendance with water at a fire scene. Also, you should not drink the water coming out of the fire hose, as it is contaminated with pump oil and microbes floating about. 

Speaking of your body, when was the last time you got a tetanus shot? You are supposed to get one every 10 years. Tetanus bacteria are commonly present in soil, dust, and manure and can infect a person through a tiny scratch, even though it is more common to get the bacteria from puncture wounds. Getting a puncture wound in your foot or hand can happen very easily while fighting a fire or during overhaul; don’t ignore that small cut or scratch like you would normally do. Find out when you had your last shot, and if it has been more than 10 years, go get one.

Protect Your Skin

Every morning, put sunscreen on your face and arms, and if your legs are exposed, put sunscreen on them too to prevent sunburn. Put a bottle of at least SPF 50 in your fire apparatus so when you are outside on the fireground after fighting a fire or standing around during a drill, you can grab it and cover your bare skin. Sunscreen helps ward off the ultraviolet rays of the sun that bounce off objects all around you and will burn your unprotected skin. Even when you are standing in the shade or out on a cloudy day, your skin can still burn. You may think you don’t have to worry about skin cancer now but, according to dermatologists, if you had even one sunburn you may get skin cancer sometime in the future. Start protecting your skin now with sunscreen! 

Protect Your Ears

Carry earplugs in your bunker gear, and carry headphones on your fire apparatus. How often do you respond in your apparatus with the windows down and the siren shrieking? How many times have you responded to an activated fire alarm and stood or worked in the vicinity of the screaming alarm? How often do you protect your hearing when using roof saws to cut a roof or while running the saws during apparatus checks? How many times have you stood in front of your apparatus while the generator was running and cranking out so much noise that you had to speak loudly so the person next to you could hear what you were saying? Do you cover your ears when your fire truck is backing into the firehouse and the backup alarm is blaring? If you don’t start protecting your hearing today by wearing hearing protection or moving away from noisy environments, you will most likely suffer hearing loss in the future.  

Protect Your Eyes and Lungs

Do you carry a personal face mask and dust-resistant safety glasses in your bunker coat pocket or on your apparatus? Wearing dust-resistant eye protection and a mask will protect your eyes and lungs when you are drilling in some old house like an acquired structure and you breach the walls. You shouldn’t breathe in the airborne particles like dirt, dust, mold, asbestos, and especially those fiberglass insulation fibers suspended in the air. Do you really want small particles of glass shards in the insulation getting sucked into your lungs? Wearing a simple face mask will help prevent this type of toxin from getting into your lungs and over time causing respiratory ailments. The fiberglass can also get in your eyes, which will cause them to become inflamed and itchy. Wearing dust-resistant safety glasses will help limit the exposure.

Another way to protect your eyes while working on the fireground or drilling outside during the daytime is to wear sunglasses with 100 percent UV blocking to shield your eyes from harmful solar radiation. Wear them even on cloudy days because the sun’s damaging UV rays can penetrate cloud cover. Extended exposure to the sun’s rays has been linked to significant eye problems such as cataracts and macular degeneration.

What happens if you get debris in your eyes while overhauling? Is there clean water readily available to flush your eyes? If you don’t have water, carry a small bottle of saline solution on your apparatus so you can use it as an eye wash; or, contact lens wearers can use it to lubricate their eyes when their contacts dry out from extended time wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus mask.

Backing fire apparatus into the firehouse and then immediately shutting down the bay door and breathing in the diesel fumes is extremely bad for your lungs, but it is done all the time. Let the apparatus bay air out completely before you close the door. We firefighters are supposed to be smart, yet closing down the doors and standing in diesel fumes is a common practice. Nothing could be more harmful or stupid.

Protect Your Heart

Since heart attacks are now the number two killer of firefighters, carry a small bottle of noncoated 325 milligrams of aspirin in your apparatus’ glove box. If a member suffers a heart attack, have him immediately chew the tablet, as this is the fastest way for the pill to work. Taking an aspirin helps limit the damage done when you have a heart attack, as it helps maintain blood flow in the body by dilating your blood vessels. Act quickly!

Protect Your Life

Does your firehouse have smoke alarms and especially carbon monoxide alarms in them to keep you safe while you are working or sleeping? If your firehouse doesn’t have these life-saving devices, get them installed at once on every level because, as you know, firehouses do burn and they are not exempt from carbon monoxide.   

I hope these few common-sense suggestions give you something to think about. It is up to us to be vigilant when it comes to keeping ourselves safe.    

Nancy Kirsch Naylis has been a volunteer firefighter in the Bergenfield (NJ) Fire Department for the past 24 years. She served for 22 years in the Bergenfield Fire Rescue Squad before joining the fire department. During her membership with the Fire Rescue Squad, she simultaneously served eight years as an EMT in the Bergenfield Volunteer Ambulance Corps, Inc. She is a New Jersey Division of Fire Safety certified Level II Fire Instructor and Drill Ground Instructor for the Bergenfield Fire Training Center.