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Photo by Erica Techo.
From left: Lt. Jody Box, firefighter Gary Noah and Battalion Chief David Kennedy are working on improving the health and wellness of firefighters at the Mountain Brook Fire Department. Photo by Erica Techo.
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Photo by Erica Techo.
Mountain Brook Fire Department has installed signs around the station to prevent carcinogens from spreading to more areas than necessary.
Mountain Brook Fire Department executive officers will tell you the department’s most valuable resource is its employees. And now, they’re working to take better care of that resource.
Starting a few months after Fire Chief Chris Mullins took over, the fire department added elements to standard physicals for its firefighters, making the process more thorough overall.
“Before, you would have the general physical, and then we were covered with hepatitis B and a chest X-ray for lung cancer,” said Battalion Chief David Kennedy, who heads up the training and safety division of the department. Those tests were all the fire department checked for about 24 years, Kennedy said. He and Mullins, however, made a decision to work toward improving the health and wellness of the department.
“Once we figured we wanted to move in that direction, of better health and wellness for our guys, I developed a committee of two people, the health and wellness committee,” Kennedy said. That committee includes Lt. Jody Box and firefighter Gary Noah, a driver for the fire department. It helps guide and design new practices. “That was the initial step. From there, according to NFPA — National Fire Protection Association — guidelines, we wanted to use those guidelines to make our physicals, our yearly required physicals for firefighters better,” Kennedy said.
They hoped to add more vaccinations and more screenings for potential health issues, Kennedy said, so he and Mullins approached City Manager Sam Gaston about the new, higher cost.
“When you ask for more testing, more vaccinations and stuff, the cost is going to go up,” Kennedy said. “Sam Gaston listened to us; we had all of our details, and he fully supported it.”
While hepatitis B vaccinations protected against any contaminated blood the firefighters encountered, Kennedy said they added hepatitis A vaccinations to protect against any contaminated waters or sewage they encountered. They also added a measles, mumps and rubella vaccination for all firefighters and a shingles vaccination for firefighters ages 50 and up.
“Stressful events can bring on shingles,” Kennedy said. “That can keep a firefighter out for two to four weeks, possibly.”
Other additions to the physical are CT scans for firefighters ages 40 and up, which will continue lung cancer screenings and add calcium scoring — a check for potential blockages.
“We want to identify if any of those issues are going on before we go through our strenuous training program,” Kennedy said. By coinciding physicals with yearly training and physical fitness tests, the fire department can ensure their men are healthy enough to complete the physical fitness portion of the exam.
“When they come in and interview, I tell them, ‘We’re going to keep you happy and healthy while you work so that when you retire, you can have a happy and healthy retirement,’” Mullins said. “It’s not just about when you’re here. It’s about when you leave.”
In addition to screening for physical health, the department also has added an emphasis on mental health. While the city of Mountain Brook has always provided access to a psychologist for firefighters and other employees, Kennedy said firefighters do not always use that resource.
“You have to be willing, once again, to set pride aside and ask for help,” he said.
The mental health classes and sessions they are teaching have a focus on asking for help when it is needed and recognizing potential risk factors in co-workers, Kennedy said, so that firefighters can help each other and themselves.
“We run very stressful calls,” he said. “There’re calls where people are badly wounded, or they end up passing away. They can remind us of our child, our sons or daughters or mom or dad. And even if they don’t, some situations are so bad it’s hard to get out of your head.”
In 2016, 132 firefighters and EMTs committed suicide in the United States, according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, and 135 suicides were reported in 2015.
“The high stress level [of the job] is kind of the primary risk factor of what’s causing it, and not being able to set pride aside and talk about it and ask for help,” Kennedy said.
A greater focus on firefighter mental health has emerged in recent years, Kennedy said, but he hopes they stay ahead of the curve in the resources provided to MBFD employees. It’s just another way to keep their greatest resource healthy, he said.
“It’s for the benefit of the employee, which also benefits us because when they’re healthy while they’re here, of course they do a better job,” Mullins said, adding that it leads to a morale boost. “It lets them know it’s a good place to work because people care about them.”