Fort McMurray firefighters report depression, respiratory problems
Published Tuesday, April 18, 2017 9:49PM EDT
A new study suggests that those who battled the monstrous Fort McMurray wildfire continue to suffer both physically and mentally nearly a year after the blaze devastated the community.
One in five firefighters who attended the wildfire reported respiratory problems, and one in six has been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, according to preliminary results of a University of Alberta report.
The study analyzed health records of 355 firefighters between six weeks to four months after the fire, which broke out in May 2016. Participants reported coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath among mental health challenges.
The report aims to offer an in-depth account of what firefighters endured during the months-long effort to quell the blaze and to develop strategies to minimize harm for first responders.
“Obviously it’s taxing. Mentally, physically,” Parkland County Deputy Fire Chief Amber Coleman, who fought the fire, told CTV Calgary. “Most of us still have that lingering cough, congestion.”
With the first phase of the study complete, researchers plan to focus their second phase on firefighters’ long-term health.
“Many people had access to the gear but by no means did everyone wear it,” said Nicola Cherry, the epidemiologist who led the study. “The second question is about scheduling. Again, if you are a Fort McMurray firefighter and it’s your home being burned down, you’re not going to want to go and take rest breaks and be away from the fire.”
Firefighters are asked to complete an online survey and share their medical records. The information, which is kept private, is then used to help researchers build a profile of who was affected, pinpoint areas of concern and offer solutions.
The recommendations could cover a gamut of firefighting protocol, from use of proper equipment to reasonable shift changes.
“Is it better to go in for 10 days and then have 10 days off, or is it better to go for two days and then have two days to recover?” Cherry said.
Coleman described the fire as “a warzone” and said that, when it came to mental health, some less-experienced firefighters were surprised by the mental toll.
“I think I was a little bit prepared, whereas maybe some of the newer members weren’t. We watched the members to make sure they have the outlet to talk about it, to ask questions, to seek help if they need it,” she said.
The research may prove to be an important reflection for future fires, which have come to be expected in Alberta during the dry summer months.
“It will happen again, and so (we should) prepare for when it does happen again,” Coleman said.
With files from CTV Calgary