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Firefighters put their lives on the line every day as part of their job. Even when they’re not running into a burning building, the cumulative effects of what they deal with can have a serious impact on their health. Some of these risks are obvious, but others are much more insidious and may take years before they reveal themselves.

This is why it is critical that first responders and their departments are aware of and understand many of the most common firefighter health risks. What follows is a brief overview of some of the biggest firefighter risks to watch for and what can be done about them.

  • Heart Disease: Being a first responder can put tremendous strain on the heart. Not only are firefighters tasked with carrying heavy equipment up and down stairs, but they also are exposed to smoke, toxic fumes and extreme heat. These dangers take their toll the longer someone remains active in the profession, which is why heart disease is one of the most significant risks of being a firefighter over the long haul.
    • How to Minimize the Risk: Living a healthier lifestyle is perhaps the best way to prevent concerns over heart disease. This includes maintaining a healthy diet, as well as getting plenty of exercise during off hours. Getting regular checkups at a doctor’s office should ensure that any warning signs are detected early enough for successful intervention.
  • Hearing Loss: Fire alarms and sirens help save lives, but they also contribute to one of the most frequent threats to firefighters’ health. The often-extreme levels of noise these women and men encounter while on the job puts them at elevated risk of losing their hearing as they age. This can affect their ability to do the work, as well as diminish their quality of life as they near retirement.
    • How to Minimize the Risk: Hearing protection should be an integral part of every firefighter’s PPE. Whether it takes the form of ear plugs or headsets, anything that can muffle the sounds of chaos can help protect the ear drums and enable responders to focus on what they are doing.
  • Chronic Respiratory Disease: Smoke and potentially toxic fumes are everywhere inside and around a burning building. Prolonged exposure to contaminated air can damage a firefighter’s lungs over time, leading to chronic conditions such as shortness of breath. This can severely impact a firefighter’s ability to perform his or her duties.
    • How to Minimize the Risk: Breathing apparatuses must be worn whenever first responders enter a burning building or encounter potentially hazardous substances. In addition, they should see their doctors on a regular basis to catch any early signs of trouble before it has an opportunity to get worse.
  • Stress and Anxiety: Saving lives is a lot of pressure for anyone to take on willingly, but this is what firefighters do every day. The extreme demands of the job and the high stakes involved can be a lot to carry mentally. This pressure often leads to excessive levels of stress and anxiety, which can have a trickle-down effect on physical health, as well.
    • How to Minimize the Risk: It is crucial for first responders to take time for themselves on a regular basis. Relaxing with family and friends or enjoying a hobby in the off hours can help provide a much-needed respite, so they can recharge and recover. It’s also crucial for departments to provide access to mental health resources and encourage their use.
  • Cancer: The unfortunate truth is that firefighters are at much higher risk of developing invasive cancers than others. This is due to their exposure to smoke and fumes.
  • How to Minimize the Risk: In addition to wearing protective gear that can limit their contact with hazardous materials, it is critical that those in the profession see their doctors on a regular basis. When treating cancer, time is of the essence.

Taking Care in the Field

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