MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Their job is to run into burning buildings while the rest of us run out and the city of St. Paul wants to do more to make sure its firefighters are up for the job, physically and mentally.
St. Paul is planning a new health and wellness program after the tragic deaths of two firefighters.
Shane Clifton, 38, died of a heart attack at his fire station last summer. Jason Woodbury, 39, died of suicide five months later.
Right now, St. Paul’s 430 firefighters are required to have an annual physical. But, they are not considered extensive exams, and sometimes they don’t even see a doctor.
This new plan will keep a much closer eye on firefighters.
The reminders of a beloved firefighter, paramedic, and father are on full display at Station 14 in St. Paul, where Shane Clifton’s life ended.
The main artery of Clifton’s heart had full blockage. Despite showing some warning signs, colleagues say he never went to a doctor. Jason Woodbury responded that day. Less than five months later, that firefighter and father of four was dead from suicide.
District Fire Chief Tom McDonough says they needed to do something.
“It really made us look inside to see if we’re doing everything we can be doing to prevent these types of losses,” he said.
McDonough is part of St. Paul’s new health task force, formed to enhance annual physicals, develop a fitness and mental health program for firefighters. Budget cuts 15 years ago took a fitness coordinator away from the department. This new plan will bring that position back.
“Firefighters are notorious for not wanting to self-report when they have medical problems,” McDonough said.
McDonough says firefighters often worry their health will force them from a job they love. So, they sometimes stay quiet.
“We don’t want to force anyone to retire but we want to find any medical problems so we can head them off early,” McDonough said.
The department is determined to move beyond their heartbreak, to better protect a profession through prevention.
“This does have the potential to save lives, absolutely,” McDonough said.
The St. Paul Fire Department received a $170,000 grant from FEMA for the new program. That’s in addition to $200,000 the city has built into next year’s budget. The goal is to have it fully-implemented by the summer of next year.