Firefighters are probably the most selfless service personnel in America, especially the ones who volunteer to fight fire. Currently, there are 27,168 registered fire departments with approximately 1,041,200 firefighters in the country. Among them, 676,900 are civilians who volunteer to help out the firefighters in their locality.
Like career firefighters, volunteers also have the same responsibilities. They go through similar training and get exposed to the same toxins.
In this blog, we will discuss the difference between career and volunteer firefighters and how they develop health hazards.
What’s the Difference between a Career and a Volunteer Firefighter?
Approximately 65% of American firefighters are volunteers. That means most of the workforce consists of people who want to serve the community without any monetary benefits.
But what’s the difference between a volunteer and a career firefighter?
Technically, a volunteer firefighter offers selfless services to the local fire department without getting paid. When on call, they respond to emergencies and receive extensive training, just like career firefighters. However, volunteers can respond to fire rescue calls from their homes.
These prove that there isn’t much difference between them. Usually, volunteer firefighters have the same values and capabilities as career ones.
Even then, the level of time commitment differs between these firefighters. Moreover, a career firefighter might have more experience and obligations than a volunteer. The state also benefits from these personnel because the fire departments can cover more ground on a lesser budget.
3 Ways Volunteer Firefighters Develop Health Hazards
Volunteers have similar responsibilities to career firefighters, including training, being on call, saving people, fighting fire, etc. That means they get exposed to situations and equipment that lead them to develop health issues.
Take a look at these three ways a volunteer firefighter develops health problems:
1. Exposure to Toxic Firefighting Foam
Most of the time, volunteers go through the same training exercises as career firefighters. That means they used real firefighting equipment to complete their tasks. A few years ago, these volunteers used to get their hands on aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) while training.
During training, they used AFFF to suppress simulation fuel fires. In doing so, they gained experience handling dangerous fire situations. However, they also exposed themselves to harmful toxins without knowing it.
Studies have shown that AFFF contains mixtures of the forever chemical named per-and-poly fluorinated substances (PFAS). For many decades, AFFF was used by civilian fire departments and the military because of its effectiveness in stopping Class B fuel fires. However, the presence of this synthetic chemical has made it a life-threatening fire extinguisher.
Why is that? Well, PFAS won’t break down in nature. It stays in the human body for prolonged periods, leading to extreme health hazards. Examples of health hazards due to PFAS exposure include cancer, high blood pressure, fertility issues, respiratory problems, hormonal imbalances, etc.
Every firefighter was furious and disappointed with the AFFF manufacturers for not warning them about PFAS exposure. Hence, military, volunteer, and civilian firefighters filed lawsuits to hold them responsible for any health issues caused by AFFF.
This firefighter foam lawsuit aims to bring justice to everyone affected by PFAS exposure caused by AFFF usage. Anyone who develops health hazards after AFFF usage or exposure can gain compensation for medical expenses, loss of work, permanent disability, etc.
According to TorHoerman Law, companies like DuPont, Chemours, 3M, etc., are the defendants in this litigation. In 2023, some of these companies settled a few lawsuits for USD 1.185 billion. However, many AFFF lawsuits are still pending, and trials are ongoing.
2. Use of PFAS-Contaminated Turnout Gear
Volunteers wear protective equipment the fire department provides when getting called for a job. Technically, this turnout gear consists of personal protective equipment (PPE) that saves the wearer’s body from toxic elements and getting burned. For instance, it includes fire-retardant helmets, coats, pants, gloves, and fire hoods.
Volunteer fire rescue personnel use this firefighter gear for all their operations and training exercises. They also wear this equipment for prolonged periods when on the job. But little do they know that this safety equipment will eventually lead them to develop health hazards.
According to reports, all firefighters have been warned about synthetic chemicals in their protective gear. The elements used to manufacture their bunker gear have been associated with an increased risk of kidney and liver cancer. It contains high levels of fluorinated compounds, such as PFAS. Technically, the manufacturers used PFAS to help enhance the gear’s ability to repel oil, fire, and water.
Like AFFF lawsuits, firefighters have also filed product liability claims against gear makers. According to Drugwatch, military, civilian, and volunteer firefighters are seeking compensation for the health hazards caused by protective gear usage. These lawsuits aim at changing the current testing standards for firefighting gear.
3. Experiencing Stressful Situations
Irrespective of how much volunteer firefighters train, they might not have the mental capacity to deal with continuous exposure to harmful situations. Unfortunately, some might become exhausted due to stringent training and harsh fire operations since they also have full-time jobs. Hence, it can lead them to develop mental health problems.
These brave individuals might initially be level-headed and calm as they start their volunteer duty. However, after dealing with multiple challenging and stressful situations, they might become fearful and emotional. Suppressing their feelings of stress and anxiety will lead to devastating consequences.
For example, if they witness death multiple times, they will start feeling guilty for not being able to save those people. As a result, it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. During that phase, they might not think rationally or logically, leading them to make mistakes at their workplace or in fire rescue operations. Some volunteers might also develop suicidal thoughts.
Even career firefighters face the same mental health challenges. When that happens, they experience issues with relationships, substance misuse, etc.
That’s why all fire rescue personnel must seek counseling and therapy after a stressful firefighting operation. Talking to someone about the situations they face will help them deal with their mental health in a better manner.
In conclusion, even though volunteer firefighters work fewer hours, they face similar health hazards as career firefighters. For instance, they can develop cancer and other health issues due to PFAS exposure from firefighting gear. Moreover, they can develop mental health problems if they don’t seek therapy.