Asthma is a growing problem in the modern world, but can you be a firefighter with asthma? Declines in air quality and exposure to air pollution have caused cases to rise in younger generations. This means that there are more people that want to apply to be a firefighter that are asthmatic or that have other respiratory illnesses.
There is an assumption by some that this might mean automatic disqualification. But, is this the case if you have your condition pretty well under control? Can’t you still prove to be a reliable, helpful member of your crew even if you have to use an inhaler now and then?
Can You Be A Firefighter with Asthma?
Yes, you can be a firefighter with asthma. In short, you don’t have to give up your dream of being a firefighter with asthma if your condition is under control and you are generally free from symptoms.
In order to prove this you will have to pass different medical tests that demonstrate your ability to reach a certain level of competency with respiratory tests. This is to ensure that you will be able to handle the intense strain of firefighting.
All departments are unique and will have their own standards and expectations. It’s important to check the rules and regulations of the department you will be applying to.
In this guide, I want to look at this question a little closer. Why might some fire chiefs not want an asthmatic firefighter?
What respiratory conditions can disqualify you from becoming a firefighter and where might they be room for negotiation?
How can you improve your chances of getting hired on the department during the hiring process?
Why Is Asthma Concerning for Firefighters?
The first thing that I need to mention here when it comes to the issue of asthma and firefighting is that there is some misinformation out there on the internet. There are some people in the profession with no personal experience of suffering from asthma and see the issue as a black and white one.
They will see asthma as a disqualifying medical condition because of the breathing issues involved. However, dealing with asthma is not a black and white issue.
For example, some people have their condition under control better than others. That is the biggest deciding factor for any physician clearing candidates with asthma – is the condition under control? How reliant are you on inhalers and other medication to get through a physical day?
Then there is your history of the condition. Many people have childhood asthma that may see the condition improve in their teens and early adulthood.
It’s not uncommon that an asthmatic child may not suffer from asthma once they graduate as a firefighter in their late teens.
To put things as bluntly as possible, you need to be able to breathe well to be a firefighter.
It is essential that you can because you need to be able to do controlled and calm manner when dealing with fires and other incidents.
There are lots of risks and contaminants in the air on-scene that could cause cancer and damage your airways further if you already have restricted lung function. If you can’t work while wearing your SCBA without becoming a liability, then you might not be able to continue working in the service.
Then there is the fact that you simply need a good lung capacity and fitness level to handle all the physical training and work in your daily duties. You can’t get out of breath and reach for an inhaler when handling heavy equipment that you use daily.
You also can be at risk of breathing issues when climbing ladders or any of the other various strenuous activities you must do. It is all about the health and safety of you, your crew and the civilians on-scene.
What are your triggers? If you have your asthma under control, you should know what triggers you to have an asthma attack. The answer could make a difference to your potential in the fire service.
For example, do you know that smoke is a trigger? If so, the fire service probably isn’t for you. If exercise causes a flare-up then this could also be an issue. But, if it is merely down to allergies or some other type of trigger, you could be OK if you can avoid them on the job.
Medical Restrictions for Asthma and the Fire Service
Asthma is listed as a Category A condition. Normally, this would mean a straight disqualification. But, the issue isn’t that simple.
The main clause in the physical exam is stated as follows. Candidates can have no “reactive airways disease requiring bronchodilator or corticosteroid therapy in the previous 2 years.”
What this essentially means is that you can be diagnosed as asthmatic and still qualify if you haven’t required an inhaler for the last 2 years. If you can prove to be asymptomatic then you should be fine.
This will be a concern for those that have very few symptoms if they take their preventive medication each day.
The decision from the physicians during the firefighter medical exam will come down to a test. Pass the test and you will proceed through the hiring process. What you will need to do it stay off any anti-inflammatory medication for 4 weeks and not take the bronchodilator on the day of the test.
Then you may be tested for your response to cold air or methacholine (at a rate of PC20 greater than 16 mg/ml). If you end up with a negative result, then you will pass.
This test isn’t the only way that you can ensure that you get a fair shot during the hiring process.
Your breathing ability and lung capacity will be tested to their limit during the medical exam to see how your lungs respond. If the test comes back negative, then you should be fine.
The medical examination will also require a discussion about your medical history. This means that you have to be honest about the severity of the condition in the past and how it has affected you recently.
Improvements and less reliance on medication should be considered. You can also discuss how this won’t be an issue during the interview process where appropriate.
Handling Your Asthma on the Job
If you do make the cut, even if you require your preventive medication at times or other aids, you can work to minimize the risk while you work. Working to improve your lung capacity can lessen the risk that physical exertion will be a trigger.
You can also have a plan in place with other crew members for a quick response if you ever have an asthma attack. Teach them about the signs/symptoms and how to help.
Consider what your triggers are and how severe your asthma is. Don’t give up and take that medical test. The results just might surprise you.