Uselman: It’s time to give MN firefighters the health support they need

Minnesota ranks 48th in the nation in fire department and firefighter funding, down from 44th in just one year. Something must be done to reverse these harrowing trends.

Dean Uselman (2021)

In my 37 years in the fire service, I’ve witnessed many traumatic scenes. And just as difficult is spending hours talking with fellow firefighters about what they’ve just experienced or worse yet, seeing my firefighting brothers and sisters struggle alone with the emotional toll of the job.

It’s well-known that those in the fire service experience much higher rates of mental health challenges than the general population – particularly in the areas of sleep disorders, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation/action. During my tenure as the Wadena Fire Chief, I’ve had to direct firefighters to leave a gruesome scene where perhaps a loved one was tragically lost; or simply not respond to a call that may cause them emotional trauma. It’s estimated that 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions including depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as compared with 20 percent in the general population.

In addition to widespread mental health issues, firefighters also struggle from disproportionately high rates of cardiovascular and cancer issues. These issues have impacted firefighters and their families across the state, but I’ve also seen them affect firefighters in many of our own communities right here in central and northwestern Minnesota, many of whom we have worked with on an emergency scene during large fires or the Wadena tornado.

Statewide, last year 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 very public Line of Duty Deaths from cardiac issues: Howard Lake Fire & Rescue/Ambulance Chief Daryl Drusch and Fridley Fire Chief Mike Spencer. There are others locally, but I will respect the privacy of those departments and the families involved. Like most of us, the stressors and delay of routine preventative care visits as a result of the coronavirus pandemic will likely significantly impact firefighters’ future health, as well.

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. Departments do as much as they can with limited resources, but there is no unified vision or commitment at the state level to prioritize fire service funding.


I appreciate the commitment of the City of Wadena and its residents in budgeting funds and supporting volunteer fundraising efforts of the Wadena firefighters to provide the necessary equipment and personal protective equipment needed to safely and effectively perform our duties. Not all departments are able to afford basic equipment needs, let alone to assist firefighters with support for the big three - cancer, cardiac, and emotional issues.

Thankfully, there is a nonprofit organization that is working to overturn what has become a dangerous pattern. The Minnesota Firefighter Initiative (MnFIRE) launched in 2017 as an innovative and inclusive approach to unify and spark conversations among firefighters, their families, their communities and state policymakers regarding firefighter health.

One of the key ways local fire leaders can respond to this health crisis is by getting their fire departments signed up for one of MnFIRE’s Awareness trainings , which are free to firefighters across the state through June 2021. These trainings are taught by firefighters and other health experts and provide firefighters with actionable tips on how to protect themselves from the three problems most commonly experienced by those in the fire service. Most of the Wadena Fire Department has received this training and found it valuable and informative regarding the dangerous impacts of the big three. With continued funding these trainings can continue to benefit firefighters new to the fire service.

In addition to education, MnFIRE is advocating for the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program bill in the Minnesota legislature. Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Howe (R, District 13) in the Senate (SF 621) and Rep. Cheryl Youakim (D, District 46B) in the House (HF 377), the bill promises to improve access to care for firefighters in critical need of treatment. By establishing a much-needed statewide $7.2 million appropriation of funds to help firefighters who are facing cardiac, emotional trauma and cancer issues – and to prevent the diseases from plaguing future firefighters.

The bill establishes one-time lump-sum “Critical Care” grants for all Minnesota firefighters diagnosed with cancer or cardiac issues, guaranteeing $30,000 per diagnosis. It also creates an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for all Minnesota firefighters facing emotional trauma issues unique to their occupation. We as Minnesotans can no longer stand back and ignore the unmet needs of those men and women who answer the call to serve, and are then left alone with the emotional stressors of their duty, sometimes considering suicide as the only way out.

According to statistics from December 2019, Minnesota ranks 48 th in the nation in fire department and firefighter funding, down from 44 th in just one year. Something must be done to reverse these harrowing trends. Passage of this legislation will help ensure that firefighters in Minnesota have the resources they need to help them deal with these lifechanging illnesses; while giving encouragement to new recruits considering firefighting as a career or in a voluntary capacity.

We must all do our part to help support the men and women who protect us and our communities every day. Please reach out to your legislator and ask them to support the heroes in our fire service by passing the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program swiftly this legislative session.

Dean Uselman is the retired Wadena Fire Department Chief.

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