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Chattanooga's new fire chief focused on responders' safety, mental health

Chattanooga Times Free Press - 12/30/2017

Dec. 30--With a new chief, a top community protection rating and plans to improve firefighters' mental and physical health, 2017 has seen a firm foundation laid for the Chattanooga Fire Department.

Chief Phillip Hyman was appointed in early November after being the department's training chief since 2013. Before that, he served as a firefighter for 22 years and held several leadership positions.

Hyman became chief two weeks after the department earned a first-time class one rating for public protection given by the Insurance Services Office -- a rating that puts Chattanooga in the top half percent of 46,000 departments nationwide and makes it the first of Tennessee's larger cities to attain such a rating.

The rating, based on the level of protection a fire department can give to a community, can lower homeowner and business insurance costs. It evaluates four main areas: the fire department itself, emergency communications, water supply, and aspects of community risk including code inspections and public education activities.

Having a high protection rating means quicker response times, which is vital when putting out fires.

"With today's fires, they advance a lot quicker," Hyman said, noting that modern materials used in furniture burn faster.

"The contents are different in homes today than they were 20-30 years ago," he said. "With the advent of plastics and synthetics and stuff like that, it actually affects fire growth. The volatility of fires in today's society are a lot hotter and fire growth happens a lot quicker, which makes it more dangerous for the folks that are in the house and more dangerous for the firefighters that have to deal with it."

So far in 2017, the fire department has responded to more than 19,300 calls, an 18 percent increase since 2013. Of those, 648 were fires, as of the end of November. Five fire-related deaths had been reported as of Friday.

"With the new year coming on, we can really try to push our vision and improve on the stuff that's already here," Hyman said. "I think we have an excellent department I'm really looking forward to supporting them over the next handful of years."


Part of those improvements includes implementing better mental health programs and support groups.

"Our firefighters see a lot of bad stuff, and how they deal with that can be a challenge at times," Hyman said. "How they deal with those stressors that they see on a daily basis is difficult."

Post-traumatic stress disorder is prevalent among firefighters, Hyman said. From vehicle accidents and house fires to seeing people in poor living conditions or displaced from their homes, firefighters and other emergency personnel have a lot of trauma they need to process.

"You see a lot of people get maimed, bad damage, lots of blood and broken bones, you know, they see that kind of stuff on a daily basis," he said. "It's hard to see folks like that, especially if it's children involved."

There are a lot of good things that happen, too, he said, but what really stands out are the bad things.

"Those are the things that stick in your brain that it's hard to erase," he said. "There are things that you see, there are things that you smell. Some of the smells that you smell, you can't get out of your mind. They'll flash back and you'll smell them every once in a while. The smell of someone who's been burnt is horrible. There's all kinds of things that we see that no one should ever have to see, but that is what we do."

To help process some of the trauma, Hyman said, the department is developing a peer support group in which firefighters, friends and coworkers can check on each other and communicate if someone is having trouble. They'll be able to connect with others who have been through a similar situation or even reach out for professional help.

Hyman said the department also will get training on how to identify if someone is having trouble.

"A lot of folks, that's how it has been in the past, is they may not understand that they need support," he said. "Maybe their behavior is odd and they haven't determined that [they need help], and maybe some of the peer support will help with that. They can identify it and help guide that person in the right direction."

He said the mental health aspect and peer support is "one of our main focuses over the next year."

In addition to better mental health support, Hyman is pushing for better physical health and fitness programs. He said physical fitness and dietary classes will be included in the coming year's state training program, which lasts 18 weeks and involves all 450 firefighters.

"We're just giving folks tools in the toolbox; we're not forcing them to work out every day, but we're giving them options of how they can work out in the fire station or how they can change a lifestyle," he said.

The class mostly will be an educational session, and the fitness instructor will show the firefighters certain routines that they can do that are job-related, Hyman said.

"With our job, we do a lot of lifting, a lot of carrying, a lot of dragging, so a lot of the exercises that we do will be more oriented toward the type work that we do," he said. "Just going and bench-pressing 500-something pounds may not be exactly what we need here, but dragging hose and picking stuff up is what we're leaning more towards."


Another improvement for the department includes acquiring a second set of protective gear for every firefighter.

A second set of gear will reduce firefighters' time spent wearing contaminated gear, Operations Chief Rick Boatwright said, which will help reduce the risk of cancer -- a leading cause of death in firefighters, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Those cancer diagnoses are mostly digestive, oral, respiratory and urinary cancers, a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed. Firefighters also are twice as likely to develop malignant mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

A second set of gear also will reduce the possibility of heat- and cold-related injuries or illness. Complications caused by the cold may happen when a firefighter gets dispatched to a wreck on a cold night after having fought a fire, with his or her gear still wet, said Jack Thompson, president of Chattanooga Fire Fighters Association Local 820.

"Pretend you're laying in your bed at night, and all of a sudden you get woken up and you have to go outside in the cold, and the only thing you have to put on is a set of wet sweatpants and a sweatshirt," he said. "You jump right out of the bed, it's soaking wet, you pick it up, you put it on, you run outside. That's what we deal with when our [gear] is wet."

Each firefighter now has only one set of protective gear to wear during a full three-day shift. That means they have to wear the same gear each time they are dispatched to an emergency. And each time, the gear absorbs more and more contaminants or carcinogens.

"Think of your kitchen sponge when you're washing your dishes," Thompson said. "You keep doing that over and over, and all of a sudden, you're like, 'Why is my sponge getting all funky?' Well, it's because it absorbs all of that food waste into your sponge. So after a while, you have to throw your sponge away. And that's what our [gear] is doing every time we go to a house fire."

And because the permeability of skin rises 400 percent with every five-degree increase in temperature, "they're absorbing all of those carcinogens through their skin," Boatwright said.

With a second set of gear, firefighters will have something to wear while the other set is being cleaned. Firefighters now clean off as much as they can while they're still on a fire scene. Then their gear is cleaned in a washing machine, called an extractor, that is specifically designed for it.

In the long run, Boatwright said, it'll save the city money by extending the life of each set of protective gear, which now has to be replaced on an average of every five to seven years.

The purchase of new gear will be spread out over a three-year period, and it will cost about $1.4 million to outfit the entire department of 450 firefighters "head to toe," Boatwright told Chattanooga City Council members in June. For 2018, the plan is to outfit 150 firefighters, enough for 10 stations.

There are already several Chattanooga firefighters who have cancer, Boatwright said.

Thompson said it's difficult to track exactly how many firefighters have cancer due to medical privacy laws. But he said he personally knows of at least seven local firefighters who have been diagnosed with either skin, blood or lung cancer.

"We're hearing every day there are firefighters across the country dying of cancer," Boatwright said. "Regardless, every firefighter has put their life on the line for the community that they serve. I mean, we know we're going to die soon."

"We just need two sets [of gear] for every firefighter to make sure that they get to enjoy their time with their family once they retire."

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.


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