Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Winning the Battles, But Losing the Wars?

My wife says I'm strange! OK, for most husbands, that's not too out of the ordinary. I suppose that most of us have an idiosyncrasy or two that may give our spouses pause. And for those of you who know me, you’re probably nodding your heads. 

However, what bothers her is that while reading the newspaper, I regularly read through the obituary column. I’m not quite sure how this habit started, however it has provided me with important information on the passing of an acquaintance that I had not heard about previously. As a matter of fact, when I was working as the administrator for a physician’s office, I came across the obit of one of our patients whom we had not seen in quite a while. In this case, the death was accidental, probably having nothing to do with a medical condition. Yet, when the rest of the staff arrived at the office that morning, no one else knew anything about this patient’s demise.

This strange habit carries over to my unwavering interest in the fire/rescue service. Through various email sources, as well as via Firehouse© Magazine, I carefully read through the details of each LODD (Line of Duty Death) listed. Why? It is because my attachment to my former avocation connects me to the well-known concept of the “firehouse brotherhood.” Though there are hundreds of women in today’s fire/rescue service, the term “brotherhood” is used as an endearment. We are family. No matter where you served, no matter whether you are/were a career member, a volunteer, or paid-on-call. Once you have carried the “red badge of courage,” you are in the family. And just as we pray for our loved ones to be safe, the same holds true for each and every brother and sister we have in the fire/rescue service.

Thus, when we hear of or read a notice of an LODD, it tears at our heart strings. I read each notice carefully. Why? Once he/she is lost, what difference is it how it occurred? The difference is that in the last couple of decades, firefighter deaths on the fireground, have been dramatically reduced. Yet, the total number of firefighters deaths per year, has remained around an average of 100, except for this past year, 2012. So, if we’re not losing our brothers on the fireground, why are we losing so many?

Some pass in either POV (Personally Owned Vehicle) or apparatus collisions on the way to or from the scene of a call. A more recent spate of losses have been from fire/rescue personnel on the scene of an incident on a public roadway, who are then struck by an oncoming vehicle. All too often, the driver who hits and often kills the rescue worker, is intoxicated or distracted and fails to heed the gazillion flashing lights, the tall orange cones, the brightly burning and smoking roadside flares, etc. And I write this column while living in the State of Florida which is one of the few remaining states that has not outlawed texting while driving. As a matter of fact, a new bill was introduced to the Florida Legislature recently, however, the previous five or six efforts never made to the floor! One Florida representative said that he felt that a law banning texting while driving infringes on the driver’s Second Amendment’s rights. Sadly, we occasionally lose members in the crash of a firefighting aircraft or a medical helicopter.

Yet, with all these various mechanisms of tragic loss, there is still one more that is all too common and one that we might stand a good chance of controlling and that is firefighters’ health. Sadly, the obituaries often note that the firefighter had just returned from a series of strenuous calls, or they had had a busy shift the day before and passed in their sleep. Some even collapse at the station or on the scene of an incident. Listen, no matter where it happens it is one too many losses that we might be able to prevent. If we don’t, we might win the “battles,” but we could lose the war.

Around the country, numerous departments, especially career, have drawn a line in the sand. They have created new, strict, standards for the well-being of their members. One of the most stringent is a “No Smoking” standard. “If you’re a smoker, don’t bother to apply for the job!” Some have taken it to, what might be considered an extreme by stating, “If you have used any type of tobacco product within 365 days prior to your application, don’t bother to apply!”

Back in junior high (middle) school and high school, I was in a successful band and part of the “cool” look was smoking cigarettes.  I gave up cigarettes when I got to college and switched to what I now call the “pseudo-cigars” of the day, i.e. Tijuana Smalls®, Hav-A-Tampa®, etc.  When I graduated, I took up a pipe and smoked it fairly regularly at home and in my office and never had an inclination to go back.

When I first volunteered on the job, several of the career members and numerous volunteers either smoked cigarettes or chew tobacco. I never gave it another thought. However, after my SCBA training and using it numerous times on active calls, I started to notice something. Here we were wearing SCBA to prevent the inhalation of smoke, poisonous hydro-carbons, and other toxic gases. Yet, when we were on a working fire and were rotated out for a spell, a lot of guys would dump the SCBA’s then light up a cigarette. 

I saw the same thing happen even more when I moved to the Syracuse NY area and joined a great combo department up there. We had some wild structure fires in the middle of those upstate New York winters. Ambient temps were in the single digits. Add a little wind-chill and we were somewhere between -10o - -25o F! Yet, the same thing happened. We’d spell-out and many of the guys would light up right after dumping their SCBA gear.

What was wrong with this picture?

What were we wearing the SCBA for? An endurance test? 

I’ve been out of active service since 1985. But fate has determined that I didn’t get enough practice during my eight years of service. No, since 1985, I’ve had the “luck” of being first or one of the first people to appear on the scene of a significant incident. From full-arrests to MVC’s (Motor Vehicle Collision) with overturned vehicles, ejections, to car vs. pedestrian, I’ve too often been the first one with any emergency medical experience who shows up. Over the past 28 years, I’ve made it a habit to carry an well-stocked BLS jump kit in my car, along with gloves, rope, collars etc. So, I feel pretty well-prepared. Except for one item…me!

I’m 28 years older and most definitely a “few” pounds heavier than I was in my heyday. And even back, I wasn’t the poster boy for volunteer firefighter health. Add to that two bad knees and a lumbar back that has caused me to be declared disabled. No, I don’t think twice about doing the right thing. The adrenalin kicks in and I do what I have to do until local fire/rescue and EMS show up. But I do know what working at every one of these incidents in the past nearly 30 years takes out of me. Because once that adrenalin stops coursing through my veins, I’m wiped out!

The difference is, I do what I do because it’s a part of who I am. We all know the axiom, “You can take the boy out of the firehouse, but you’ll never get the firehouse out of the boy.” This isn’t my job! And if the Good Lord decides that it’s time for my interview, then so be it. I will go, knowing I did what was the right thing to do.

However today, we are losing far too many brothers and sisters to preventable disease. Though part of our jobs is to help prevent the calls we respond to, we never will be able to prevent them all. So, yes, there is danger in the work we do. But, it’s not impossible for most of us to lose weight. It’s not impossible for us to change to healthier diets. It’s not impossible for us to get some regular cardio work-out time in. It’s not impossible to work with either our own physician or the department surgeon, to check us for possible medical conditions we’ve developed since getting on the job and keeping them in check. 

What is impossible is for your family to bring you back if you become a statistic due to preventable illness. Don’t give me that crap about being too busy! When I was on the job, I worked an average of 80 hours per week in my vocation, had a wife and two daughters, and still found time to volunteer at the local firehouse. Ask yourself, “What’s more important? You taking a day off to spend with your doctor and some medical tests or your wife and kids taking a day off to bury you with honors?”

The “LODD Notice” column in Firehouse® isn’t going to go away. But you can make it a lot shorter!