Advancing Occupational Health in the American Fire Service

On March 26-27, 2015, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) sponsored a meeting in Baltimore on the topic of Advancing Occupational Health in the American Fire Service: Initial Assessment and Planning Session. The goal of the event was to advance understanding of how occupational medicine is delivered to firefighters across the country.

In attendance were ten occupational physicians (with fire service affiliations), a behavioral health specialist, and NFFF support staff. The meeting participants were given their charge by NFFF Executive Director Ronald J. Siarnicki. He said, “Firefighters require excellent and specific forms of medical surveillance and treatments, and we look to the Occ Med community to lead the way on this topic.” Dr. Richard Gist, Kansas City (MO) Fire Department, was the facilitator.

Occ Med physicians practice a type of clinical medicine with additional specialization and training in the health and wellness of workers. They are most often pro-active in that they are especially interested in the prevention of injuries, illnesses and disabling accidents that can be directly or causally linked to the work place. Occ Med doctors who work with firefighter populations can also act as adjudicators when it comes to return to work issues.

In this country, not many fire departments have Occ Med physicians on-staff, although this is not uncommon among the medium to large metro departments. Most Occ Medicine available to firefighters is done so through contractual arrangements between fire departments and independent contractors who supply physicians for referrals, training, guidance, technical advice, etc. The vast majority of firefighter healthcare, however, transpires between firefighters and their Primary Care Physicians (PCPs).

PCPs are not typically trained in occupational medicine, or the specifics of the illnesses and diseases affecting firefighters. Even if a firefighter presents a checklist to the PCP of best practices, this is still no guarantee that the PCP will have the training or time to manage outcomes. There is so much developing knowledge in firefighter health and wellness that it is could become a field of practice in and of itself in the near future.

It is very important for PCPs to have what they need to care for firefighters. Much of what was discussed by the Occ Med docs in Baltimore last week centered on building relationships, improving communication and the development of education and training initiatives for PCPs. One of the doctors in attendance noted that this effort will be “critically important in maximizing health and minimizing diseases in firefighters.”

The group in Baltimore determined they would like to be a catalyst for assisting the PCPs and set for themselves a number of wide-ranging goals. As this material becomes available, the NFFF will see that it is widely distributed throughout the fire service and occupational medicine community, with targeted outreach to those PCP caring for firefighters.

If you would like more information about this meeting please contact Dr. JoEllen Kelly, NFFF, [email protected]