Firefighter Health Risks

Firefighters face serious risks on the job. They face heat, flames, physical and mental stress, and high levels of carbon monoxide (CO) and other toxic risks in the areas around fires. Here are potential threats firefighters face on a daily basis. Ready Wristbands was created to raise awareness for these issues and provide firefighters with the best resources and support available.

Firefighters and Mental Health

Most people are aware of the physical demands that first response activities place on firefighters and EMS providers. But it is important to also realize the impact that fighting fires and responding to emergencies has on the mental well-being of emergency personnel. Firefighters and EMS providers face the risk of many behavioral health concerns such as anxiety, depression, burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction among others.


Cancer is a significant threat to emergency responders. Numerous studies have shown that firefighters are at a great risk for getting several types of cancer as compared with the general population. As a first responder, it is critical that you educate yourself on your risks and what you can do to minimize those risks.

Early detection is key to combating cancer, so make sure you are getting regular screenings and tell your doctor that you are a firefighter. Also take steps to reduce your risks of exposure to cancer-causing carcinogens. This includes full and proper use of PPE throughout response and overhaul, washing PPE and hoods after response, never storing dirty PPE in your car or house, and washing your face and hands immediately after response and before touching food.

State Firefighter Cancer Presumption Laws

Many states have laws establishing a presumption that certain types of cancer contracted by firefighters are the result of duty-related exposure. These laws typically allow the families of firefighters who contract these types of cancer to receive compensation in various forms, including through enhanced retirement or pension benefits, workers compensation, and/or death and disability benefits.

Most state laws stipulate various conditions that must be met in order for the cancer presumption to be valid, including that the firefighter have served for a certain length of time, that the firefighter have refrained from using tobacco products, that the firefighter had a physical examination upon joining the department, etc. These conditions are intended to protect the state or department (depending on which entity is responsible for paying the benefit) from having to compensate families of firefighters whose cancer was not contracted as a result of duty-related exposure.

Not all state presumptive laws extend coverage to volunteer firefighters. In some cases, state laws explicitly extend coverage only to full-time paid firefighters. In other cases, state laws apply exclusively to benefits that only full-time paid firefighters receive. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) maintains a publicly-accessible web page listing cancer presumption laws in different states.

Cancer Resources

  • Firefighter Cancer Support Network
    The Firefighter Cancer Support Network provides support and assistance to firefighters and their families in the event of a cancer diagnosis, as well as resources for firefighter cancer research and prevention.
  • Fire Smoke Coalition
    The Fire Smoke Coalition has resources and training to help firefighters “Know Your Smoke” and prevent exposure to toxic environments.
  • National Cancer Institute
    The National Cancer Institute provides information on screenings, prevention, treatment, and more.
  • Study of Cancer Among U.S. Firefighters
    The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a study of 30,000 firefighters from three large cities and found higher rates of several types of cancers, and of all cancers combined, than the U.S. population as a whole. Read a summary of the findings.

Heart Health

Heart attack is the leading cause of firefighter fatalities. There are many steps you can take to improve your health, reduce your risk factors, and enhance your abilities to perform first response duties. Support all personnel in making healthy lifestyle choices and create a culture in your department where fitness, good nutrition, no smoking, and other healthy behaviors are encouraged and expected.

Improving your health will help you be at your best as a first responder and ensure that you can be there for your department, your family, and your community.

Heart Resources

  • International Fire/EMS Safety and Health Week
    Over 20 national fire and emergency service organizations, sponsor Safety and Health Week each June to raise awareness of critical health and safety issues in the emergency services and motivate first responders to take action.
  • The First Twenty
    The First Twenty is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the health of the American firefighter and decreasing line-of-duty deaths due to heart attack. Their program is a fitness and wellness system that reaches, educates, trains, and motivates firefighters. Focusing on physical fitness, mental fitness, and nutrition, the program is designed to be easily managed, maintained, and implemented by the average firefighter.
  • IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Section
    The International Association of Fire Chief’s (IAFC) Safety, Health and Survival Section was established to provide a specific component within the IAFC to concentrate on policies and issues relating to the health and safety of firefighters.

National Fire Service Suicide Reporting System

Unfortunately department around the country tragically lose dozens of firefighters and EMTs each year to suicide. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance is the nationally recognized reporting system for collecting data about firefighter suicide. The reporting system is confidential and the data is used to identify trends and prevent future instances of firefighter and EMT suicide. The reporting system is confidential and the data is used to identify trends and prevent future instances of firefighter and EMT suicide.

To report a suicide, use the Confidential Suicide Form.