When people picture firefighters, images of strength, bravery and danger usually come to mind — maybe carrying people out of burning buildings, as we see so often on TV. I’m not here to tell you those images are inaccurate, but rather to share another side of firefighting that many may not consider.
Now picture this: A volunteer firefighter in rural Minnesota lying in a hospital bed after a fifth round of chemotherapy to address multiple myeloma cancer. That firefighter is stressed and wondering how to cover the costs of medical care, and also the less obvious costs like child care and missed time at work. Unfortunately, this image is a reality for far too many firefighters across our state.
Fighting fires for any length of time results in an alarmingly high risk of developing cardiac, cancer and emotional trauma issues. These issues, and covering the cost of care to address them, is a real problem for our hometown heroes – and one that needs to be addressed this legislative session.
The bipartisan Hometown Heroes Assistance Program continues to gain momentum across the state — with thousands of firefighters, firefighter survivor families, local leaders and advocates urging the Minnesota Legislature to pass it quickly and definitively in 2020. The program ensures that all of our state’s firefighters can access the care they need to address the common health issues that result from fighting fires – cardiac, cancer and emotional trauma.
I started on the journey to pass the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program several years ago when I was the Eden Prairie fire chief and witnessed firsthand how these issues affected my colleagues and friends regularly. And now, with each firefighter funeral I attend – and there are far too many, too often – I find renewed determination to fight to get this program passed in 2020.
There’s no question heart attacks – as well as emotional trauma and cancer – pose a very real danger to firefighters. Sadly, firefighter health and safety will continue to suffer as a result of a lack of public awareness and attention within the state. Departments do as much as they can with limited resources, but there is no unified vision or commitment at the city or state level to prioritize fire service funding. Our hometown heroes deserve better.
Just a few weeks ago I attended the funeral of Howard Lake Fire Chief Daryl “Taddy” Drusch, who died of a heart attack hours after responding to an emergency call. Only 49 years old, Chief Drusch left behind a wife and son. I also attended the funeral of a young firefighter who died from suicide a few weeks earlier, who leaves behind a young family. Until we make it a priority to draw awareness to and address these health issues, our state’s 20,000 firefighters continue to be at risk.
Improving firefighter health outcomes requires attention and investment, and we can start by passing the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program. The program will ensure all of Minnesota’s firefighters have supplemental health insurance and firefighter-centric emotional well-being resources. The legislation will also support ongoing awareness trainings around these health issues for firefighters and medical professionals – helping to prevent these diseases from plaguing future firefighters. Prevention and education are the keys to changing the tragic trends in the Minnesota fire service.
The image of bravery people associate with firefighters is not wrong. In fact, it’s incredibly accurate. Firefighters are obligated to face hazards every day on behalf of those who can’t or won’t. Which is why we must confront these health threats facing Minnesota’s fire service with the same courage, determination and commitment they bring to fighting fires.
I urge the Minnesota Legislature to pass the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program in 2020, and for citizens across the state to remind their legislators that this should be a priority. It’s time to protect those who protect us every day.
George Esbensen is the president of the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative (MnFIRE) and former Eden Prairie fire chief. The Minnesota Firefighter Initiative was established in 2016 to bring awareness to the high incidence of life-threatening illness among firefighters — especially cardiac, cancer and emotional trauma issues.
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