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Viewpoint: It’s time to protect the health of our hometown heroes

According to the National Fire Protection Association, more than 68 percent of all firefighters will develop some form of cancer in their lifetimes. Likewise, 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.

Gary Larson.jpg
Gary Larson

Serving as East Grand Forks Fire Chief was my dream job, but after 30 years of firefighting, I realized a major problem facing the Minnesota fire service and costing the lives of so many of our brothers and sisters: the alarmingly high incidence of firefighter cancer, cardiovascular and mental health issues.

Just last year, Howard Lake fire chief Daryl “Taddy” Drusch tragically died of a heart attack just hours after responding to an emergency call. Drusch is not alone, as cardiovascular disease is the number-one killer of firefighters nationwide and is by far the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths in the fire service.

Another tragedy: Glen Solem from Grand Lake Fire Protection District died in early 2020, after a 14-month battle with esophageal cancer. According to the National Fire Protection Association, more than 68 percent of all firefighters will develop some form of cancer in their lifetimes. Likewise, 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. The mental and emotional costs of being a firefighter are high, and consequently those in the fire service experience much higher rates of mental health challenges than the general population – including sleep disorders, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation/action. With the added stress of the pandemic this past year, I can only expect our mental health crisis to worsen.

All hope is not lost thanks to one nonprofit organization that is leading the charge for change, the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative (MnFIRE). 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 equips firefighters and the people who care about them with the resources they need to prevent and treat these illnesses and empower them to make good decisions about their health.

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Critical funding shortages make it difficult for fire service leaders to prioritize firefighter health measures and equipment, such as department-wide health check-ups, gear-cleaning tools and mental health resources. That’s why MnFIRE is currently championing the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program bill in the Minnesota legislature. The bi-partisan bill promises to improve access to care for firefighters in need of treatment by establishing a statewide $7.2 million appropriation of funds. By providing supplemental health insurance and Employee Assistance Program resources, the program will ensure all of our state’s 20,000 firefighters have access to the care needed to handle a cardiac, emotional trauma or cancer diagnosis – and to prevent these diseases from harming firefighters in the future.

Local fire leaders can respond to this health crisis today by getting their fire departments signed up for one of MnFIRE’s Awareness trainings, free to firefighters across the state through June 2021. These trainings are taught by firefighters and other health experts and provide firefighters with actionable tips on how to protect themselves from cardiac, cancer and mental health problems.

We cannot allow more firefighters, our hometown heroes and dedicated protectors of our communities, to suffer as Daryl, Glen and Erik did. We must get them the support they need through this critical funding and specialized training.

The first step? I urge you to contact your state legislators today and let them know they should support the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program.

Gary Larson is the retired East Grand Forks Fire Department chief. To learn more about the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative, visit www.mnfireinitiative.com .

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