There is an 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 March 2018, Mapleton, Minn., firefighter Timothy Royce died in the line of duty. Capt. Jeff Vollmer, a 12-year veteran of the Mayer, Minn., Fire Department, died in December 2017 after a rigorous training session.

As the former chief of the Rochester Fire Department, news like this really hits home for me. Over the course of my 36-year career, I have known 20-plus firefighters who had cancer, died from cancer, had heart issues or significant post-traumatic stress problems.

These aren’t isolated instances. 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.

Cardiovascular issues are not the only occupational health risk afflicting firefighters. More and more research has surfaced showing that those in the fire service also endure higher rates of mental health challenges and cancer rates than the general population.

The lack of awareness around these health risks among the public and firefighters contributes to the continued decline of firefighter health and safety. 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.

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.

In addition to its work educating Minnesotans about the importance of firefighter health and wellness, MnFIRE recently launched a peer support hotline for firefighters struggling with emotional issues. Firefighters in crisis can call the 24-hour hotline at 888-784-6634 for peer counseling.

Improving firefighter health outcomes starts with awareness. But to make a real difference, we also need legislative action. There is a bill currently under consideration by the Minnesota Legislature that promises to improve access to care for firefighters in need of treatment.

The Hometown Heroes Assistance Program bill has overwhelming bipartisan support and would provide supplemental health insurance and Employee Assistance Program resources for 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 Rochester residents.

I encourage fire departments to contact MnFIRE about how they can promote greater health awareness among firefighters. I also urge legislators to pass the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program bill in 2020 and ensure our firefighters have the resources they need to combat occupational health risks.

When firefighters are taken care of, they’re able to continue protecting our communities, and that benefits everyone.

Greg Martin is the former Rochester fire chief. He is also a MnFire instructor and a public safety specialist for BKV Group Architects in Minneapolis. To learn more about the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative, go to www.mnfireinitiative.com.

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