When I retired in 2019 after nearly 40 years in the fire service, the last 16 as Fridley’s fire chief, I entered a new chapter of my life content with the relationships, memories and impact I made over the past four decades. The men and women of the fire service I served with, both in Fridley and across Minnesota, are dedicated to supporting the communities they serve with heroism and valor. They respond admirably to the dangers of the job, embracing a do-what-it-takes attitude to protect their fellow Minnesotans. I am confident in their ongoing commitment to keep us safe.
At the same time, I continue to feel a sense of sadness at the losses our state’s fire service is facing – and firefighters’ ability to keep themselves safe. 2020 was one of the deadliest years in modern memory for Minnesota’s fire service, and it included multiple suicides of active firefighters, numerous deaths from cancer and two Line of Duty Deaths from cardiac issues: Howard Lake Fire & Rescue/Ambulance Chief Daryl (Taddy) Drusch and my successor, a friend I worked alongside for 14 years, Fridley Fire Chief Mike Spencer. And like most of us, the stressors around the coronavirus pandemic are significantly impacting firefighters’ emotional health, as well.
But while we are dealing with unprecedented pressure and loss, a sense of opportunity and optimism regarding the future of Minnesota firefighter health is beginning to shine through.
The Minnesota Firefighter Initiative, better known as MnFIRE, is an organization I’ve supported since its inception in 2016. The statewide advocacy organization equips firefighters and the people who care about them with resources to address the growing health crisis. I’ve felt the benefit MnFIRE provides firsthand. During my career I experienced many emotional traumas, including the loss of retired Deputy Fire Chief Richard Larson and firefighter Howard Simonson, both of whom suffered from cancer. I worked with two firefighters who experienced emotional trauma that led to them leaving the fire department. One was a recruit firefighter who was planning to die by suicide but was saved by the support of instructors and fire department staff after being connected with MnFIRE. After my retirement I connected with MnFIRE for treatment of my emotional trauma. This has been a true blessing for my mental health.
Now, because of the welcome funding for a training program and an initiative gaining steam in the Legislature, MnFIRE is now better poised than ever to help the state’s firefighters help themselves.
In October 2020, MnFIRE received a $400,000 grant from the Fire Service Advisory Committee to train all 22,000 Minnesota firefighters to become “MnFIRE Aware” of their occupational health risks by June 30, 2021. The training, taught by firefighters and other health experts, teaches firefighters how to protect themselves from the three problems most commonly experienced by those in the fire service – cardiac, emotional trauma and cancer – so they can continue to protect others.
In addition to the awareness training, MnFIRE has developed new deep-dive sessions on cardiac, emotional trauma and cancer – further educating firefighters on how to prevent the health risks from destroying their lives and those of their peers before it’s too late. All it takes to receive this potentially life-saving training is for departments to sign up.
And while the MnFIRE training is gaining momentum – so far the organization has trained more than 8,000 firefighters statewide – a bipartisan bill designed to protect firefighters is once again making its way through the Minnesota Legislature. The Hometown Heroes Assistance Program will ensure all of Minnesota’s firefighters have supplemental health insurance and firefighter-centric emotional well-being resources.
Minnesota ranks 48th in the nation in per-capita fire service spending. Critical funding shortages throughout Minnesota departments make it difficult for fire service leaders to prioritize firefighter health measures and equipment, such as department-wide health checkups, gear-cleaning tools and mental health resources. MnFIRE is asking Minnesota legislators for $7.3 million to start moving the needle toward appropriate funding for firefighter health. Widely supported by Minnesota’s fire service organizations and a bipartisan group of legislators, the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program (SF 621 and HF 377) will ensure that all of Minnesota’s 20,000 firefighters have access to the care needed to handle a cardiac, emotional trauma or cancer diagnosis by:
- Providing a statewide “Critical Care” policy for all Minnesota firefighters which covers diagnoses of cancer or cardiac issues. Coverage amount is $30,000 per diagnosis.
- Creating a MnFIRE Assistance Program (MnAP) for all Minnesota firefighters targeting emotional trauma issues unique to the fire service.
- Ensuring additional MnAP support for firefighters who remain in need beyond initial treatment sessions.
- Supporting the MnFIRE Awareness training on an ongoing, annual basis for every Minnesota firefighter.
- Sustaining annual MnFIRE Awareness Training for medical doctors and mental health professionals statewide so all firefighters in Minnesota have regional access to informed and trained medical professionals to help with prevention, mitigation, diagnosis and treatment of cancer, cardiac and emotional trauma.
Prevention and education are critical to changing the tragic trends in the Minnesota fire service, and these two initiatives – the MnFIRE training program and the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program – are two important ways we can move in the right direction.
If my four decades in the fire service taught me anything, it’s that Minnesota’s firefighters won’t hesitate to do everything possible to protect their neighbors’ safety and well-being.
It’s time to do the same for them.
John Berg is a former Fridley fire chief.
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