Last Sunday, from sunrise to sunset, the United States flag was flown at half-staff honoring our nation's fallen firefighters. This year has been a rough one, as 81 firefighters have already died in their service to the public. The Arizona wildfire disaster alone killed 19 firefighters. The flying of our flag at half-staff the first Sunday of every October has been a tradition since 2001, after a presidential proclamation took effect.
The wildland fire season still has at least four to six weeks to go before the high level threats subside. This year has been particularly bad because of the extremely dry conditions in California and the accumulation of undergrowth and deadfall. The fires we have been experiencing this year have been more dangerous and widespread than in recent times. This poses a serious threat to firefighters who may have to face these dangers again this year before cooler temperatures and moisture come along to reduce the fire hazards.
Many people do not know about the threat of premature deaths that accompany the firefighting profession. When most of us think about firefighters dying, it is usually in the context of them burning to death, inhaling toxic substances either at fires or ones associated with spills, or otherwise being fatally injured while actively fighting fires. The statistics suggest more subtle, less obvious threats to a firefighter's life and physical well-being.
In terms of firefighters' mortality, heart attacks are the number one cause of line of duty deaths. Studies suggest that the frequent physical and emotional stress that firefighters experience plays a significant role in their vulnerability to heart attacks that rob them of their lives prematurely. They are also routinely exposed to substances that with just one exposure can kill them years later through cancer, lung disease or other medical afflictions. Firefighters exposed to dangerous diseases almost daily that oftentimes are unknown to them until after they have dealt with a severely sick patient. They take precautions, of course, but in emergency situations, it is not uncommon for a sick person's blood or other bodily fluids to make contact with a firefighter's face, eyes or other exposed parts of their bodies. They wear safety glasses and "glove-up," but no preventative measure is 100 percent effective. It may take years, but it happens all too often that firefighters find that their bodies have tuberculosis anti-bodies, or that they contracted Hepatitis. The silent killers are all around them most anytime they work a shift.
As a professional associated with the fire service, I am very pleased that the leaders of this nation have taken extra steps to acknowledge the losses of firefighters' lives during this year so far. It gives everyone a reason to think about the sacrifices that firefighters and their families make in the service of their community. It also gives me an opportunity to call attention to the risks that firefighters take and the price they pay to save lives and protect people and their property.