The following column by Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn was published in the Shoreview Press and the Vadnais Heights Press on Wednesday, May 22, 2019:
In 2017, I had the privilege of participating in a Fire Ops 101 training. I spent the day training alongside firefighters in full turn-out gear on a hot August day, learning more about the work they do for our communities every day. The experience was incredibly powerful, both physically and emotionally. Throughout the day, I spoke with firefighters and learned about the short and long term risks they take on to protect all of us. I heard personal stories and learned about the increased risks for mental and physical health issues. Since participating in that training, I have been committed to doing what we can at the legislature to support and protect firefighters and the important work they do.
When there’s an emergency, firefighters are often the first people on the scene. Burning buildings, car accidents, heart attacks – they witness it all on a daily basis. Repeated exposure to these kinds of stress and trauma puts firefighters and other first responders at an elevated risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions. The symptoms can significantly impact all aspects of a person’s life. Firefighters are also at a higher risk for suicide. In fact, statistics show they’re more likely to lose their lives to suicide than in the line of duty.
While there’s help for firefighters who struggle with PTSD, many report that certain barriers make it more difficult to get the care they need. Last year, we approved a bill at the legislature that removed one of these obstacles. The law, which went into effect on January 1st, establishes a presumption that PTSD is job-related in certain professions. Previously, people were required to prove that their job had caused the disorder in order to get workers’ compensation. This law makes it easier for firefighters, police officers, and paramedics to get the treatment they need. This was a first step towards providing better support and mental health resources to our hometown heroes.
Firefighters are also exposed to toxic chemicals that can damage their health. When flame retardant chemicals burn, they produce furans and dioxins into the air. These chemicals can cause cancer and have been linked to developmental and reproductive health issues. Firefighters can inhale these carcinogens or absorb them through their skin. They can also get into dust in homes, endangering young children who may crawl on floors or put products that contain them in their mouths. Flame retardants are also unnecessary. Studies have shown that they do very little to stop fires or increase the length of time you have to get out of your home in a fire.
I’m carrying legislation this year to ban manufacturing or selling children’s products, fabrics, and furniture that contain unnecessary flame retardants above a certain level. This would protect firefighters and kids from exposure to these toxic chemicals. My bill is supported by the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters, Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, and Minnesota State Volunteer Firefighters Association. The bill recently passed off the House floor and we are hoping that by the time you read this column, it will be on its way to the Governor’s desk to be signed in to law.
Firefighters dedicate their lives to serving our communities. They shouldn’t experience preventable health risks because of their service. Making it easier for firefighters to access mental health resources and protecting them from exposure to toxic chemicals are important ways we can provide better support for the people who dedicate their lives to keeping the rest of us safe.