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Columbia Heights Fire Department (File photo by Steven Nodgaard)

The Columbia Heights Fire Department recently joined a growing list of Minnesota fire departments completing the MnFIRE Aware training, which helps firefighters identify common occupational health risks.

The training class was hosted by the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative (MnFIRE), a statewide advocacy organization that seeks to equip firefighters, and the people who care about them, with resources to address a health crisis in the Minnesota fire service.

Several years ago, MnFIRE started the free MnFIRE Aware training with the goal of making all Minnesota firefighters aware of the increased dangers of cancer they face. According to the Centers for Disease Control, firefighters are twice as likely to acquire some form of cancer compared to someone in the general public.

The MnFIRE Aware training on Jan. 11, which is taught by firefighters and other health experts, gave Columbia Heights firefighters actionable tips on how to protect themselves from the three problems most commonly experienced by those in the fire service — cardiac issues, emotional trauma and cancer — so they can protect others and themselves.

“The fire service has many risks involved with the most obvious being smoke, flames and physical injury,” Columbia Heights Fire Department Training Officer and Fire Capt. Thomas Mattson said in an email. “There are however ‘hidden’ or often overlooked risks that all fire fighters expose themselves to regardless of whether they are volunteer or career firefighters. Columbia Heights is a combination department utilizing both career and paid on call (volunteer) members.”

Mattson said the department participated in the MnFIRE Aware training several years ago when it was first being rolled out. Since then, the Columbia Heights Fire Department has experienced personnel turnover with many new members joining their ranks, making it timely and beneficial for the department to take advantage of the free training.

MnFIRE recently received a $400,000 grant from the Fire Service Advisory Committee to train all Minnesota firefighters to become “MnFIRE Aware” of their occupational health risks by June 30, 2021.

“MNFIRE has added ‘targeted’ sessions to further educate firefighters about new risks that are coming to light,” Mattson said. “These risks, in addition to increased cancer, are increased cardiac issues and mental health and wellbeing. We have seen a dramatic increase in firefighter PTSD, suicides and heart attacks. The Columbia Heights Fire Department has scheduled these targeted sessions in the near future for our membership. Our goal is that we will not only all become more self-aware but also keep an eye on our team mates as well.”

The Columbia Heights Fire Department joins a list of more than 8,000 firefighters who have already received the training statewide.

“By participating in this important training, Columbia Heights proved that the health of their hometown heroes is a priority,” MnFIRE President George Esbensen said in a statement. “There’s a health crisis in the Minnesota fire service and it’s more important than ever that firefighters across the state are aware of their heightened risk for cardiac, emotional trauma and cancer issues.”

Minnesota firefighters are regularly losing their lives due to occupational health issues. In addition to cancer and cardiac-related deaths, four to six active Minnesota firefighters die by suicide each year.

In addition to conducting MnFIRE Aware Trainings both in person and online at no cost to departments, MnFIRE offers a confidential, toll-free helpline (888-784-6634) for firefighters in crisis.

The nonprofit is also spearheading a legislative initiative to improve access to care for firefighters in need of treatment for cancer, cardiac and emotional trauma issues. The Hometown Heroes Assistance Program is expected to be introduced during the 2021 legislative session. Learn more at MNFireInitiative.com.

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