Ask the average Barbadian what dangers they imagine in the life of any of our firefighters, and they would paint you scenes of the officer endeavouring not to be encircled by a burning field of sugar cane; or fleeing a burnt out building that is about to collapse; or attempting to rescue a trapped victim from a sturdier burning building at risk of his own soul –– or surviving any of these ordeals, but not without suffering injury or fatal wounds.
When we think of the dangers confronting fire officers, we position them at the points of hazardous blaze extinguishment or moments of intrepid rescue.
There is, of course, nothing erroneous about such imageries, burning structures or cane fields ablaze are definitely dangerous –– even for the most highly trained of these emergency responders. In any normal response, where even adventure is sedate as in grass fires, firefighters are at risk of skin burn, suffocation due to billowing smoke and consequent deprivation of oxygen, dangerous inhalation of toxic gases where blazes might spread to storage facilities, head injury from falling pieces of ceiling material, and leg damage from collapsing floors.
Naturally, and quite sensibly, to protect themselves from some of these dangers, our firefighters wear special helmets and other heavy-duty safety equipment, including flame-retardant clothing, face-mask respirators and the like.
And, for the demanding tasks required of their job, our fire officers must be fit, and must –– or should –– thus go through regular exercise regimes and many a drill in preparation for the dangerous conditions they will face when called upon any hour of day or night. In a nutshell, the fire officer, who must undergo this kind of extensive training must be prepared for all kinds of emergencies –– whether they be the regular blazes, chemical fires or spills, or mass motor vehicle crashes.
In the United States, firefighters have been discovered to be at a higher risk of developing a range of malignancies –– inclusive of testicular cancer, prostate cancer, lymphoma and myeloma –– than most other professionals, and certainly than regular members of the population. This expanded risk is said to be contributed to in part by firefighters removing protective gear too soon on leaving a damaged or burning building, when they could still be in danger areas where inhalation of carcinogenic toxins are likely.
Submissions by some American health experts are that when fire officers doff their gear, cancer-causing chemicals can even be absorbed through the skin.
Our firefighters in Barbados are fortunate not to be accosted by such affliction and circumstance normally –– so far as we know. But Fire Officer 313 Carlos Husbands’ worry did not escape our attention. Firefighters notably work long hours, wherever they might be, which contributes largely to an environment of high stress. They do not have to be always making heroic dashes to burning buildings and the multiple car crash scene, like the TV actors do, to be overloaded.
Mr Husbands said it was generally observed in the Barbados Fire Service that most of officers suffered from high blood pressure as a result of the highly intense atmosphere surrounding the job. The fire prevention officer was addressing the media yesterday morning from his Probyn Street headquarters when he let slip this obvious concern. The occasion was the Barbados Fire Service’s Health Extravaganza themed Working To Have A Safer Community.
“. . . The department is dominated by males,” Fire Officer Husbands reported, “and we know males don’t like to go to the doctor to get checks done; and that is one of the reasons why we brought in the various health practitioners. If we can have the various health care officers come in and identify illnesses . . . it would help them [the firemen] . . . and not just let them walk around and drop dead.”
Mr Husbands said the Health Extravanganza, which usually coincided with the Barbados Fire Service Week, had been expanded over the years, as a result of favourable response from the public presumably, and this apparently had become a stimulus to “more junior and senior officers attending the event” for health checks that included blood pressure, sugar, cholesterol and HIV testing.
As happy as we are that our Barbadian fire officers –– in particular the men, as announced by Mr Husbands –– are paying more attention to their overall health, having to deal with demanding work schedules and standing a good chance of suffering from high blood pressure, we aver that there needs to be a more structured programme of check-ups for our firefighters than now seemingly obtains.
It simply is not the very best status when only “most” of our fire officers are paying closer attention to their overall health through participating in physical activities and maintaining better lifestyle practices –– and not all! That high blood pressure –– the silent killer –– is prevalent in the Fire Service ranks, as confessed by Fire Officer Husbands, is reason enough to insist on healthy practices by and regular bodily check-ups for all our Bajan firefighters.
Like Fire Officer Husbands, we just do not want to see them “walk around and drop dead”.