The new Center for Firefighter Health Collaborative Research in the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona Health Sciences will allow researchers to expand their work with firefighters and fire departments to study the occupational health risks firefighters face.
The center, recently approved by the UArizona Office of Research, Innovation and Impact, builds on years of firefighter health research conducted by Zuckerman College of Public Health faculty in close collaboration with fire departments. Some of that research has already had a positive impact on firefighter health, including helping inform the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s decision to classify occupational exposure as a firefighter as carcinogenic, changing the previous classification of possibly carcinogenic.
“This new center focuses our efforts to find answers to the health questions that our firefighter partners are asking by bringing together the researchers who are working with firefighters on a range of issues,” said Jefferey L. Burgess, MD, MS, MPH, professor in the Zuckerman College of Public Health. “Our community-engaged research with firefighters is at the heart of the center.”
Research conducted at the Center for Firefighter Health Collaborative Research will build on previous studies and provide a database to help inform decisions, practices and policies to improve firefighter safety and health.
The center researchers and their teams have brought in over $50 million in grant funding awards since 2015 and resulted in more than 45 research publications that have informed practice and policy for firefighters and other essential workers.
“Our collaboration with researchers from the University of Arizona Health Sciences has already delivered real benefits for our firefighters. I am proud that we can be part of a larger effort that advances health promotion and policy for all firefighters,” said Tucson Fire Department Capt. John Gulotta. “This collaborative effort is unique because stakeholder perspectives, activities and opinions from all levels of the fire service – from frontline firefighters to senior leadership – are represented. This approach improves the chance for successful change in the fire service safety culture.”
“We have forged strong relationships with the Tucson Fire Department and other fire departments that enable this research,” said Dr. Burgess, who is also a member of the BIO5 Institute. “At the same time, we’re able to draw on a range of public health expertise and exposure science knowledge at the University of Arizona Health Sciences and other collaborating universities that make it possible to do this work and answer these important occupational health questions.”
Other College of Public Health researchers working with the Center for Firefighter Health Collaborative Research include associate professor Kate Ellingson, PhD; assistant professor and BIO5 Institute member Leslie Farland, ScD, MSc; assistant professor Melissa Furlong, PhD; associate professor Patricia Haynes, PhD, CBSM; and assistant professor Yiwen Liu, PhD. They work closely with firefighter partners including Gulotta; Capt. Jamie Gabriel from the Los Angeles County Fire Department; retired Capt. Jeff Hughes from the Orange County Fire Authority; Derek Urwin, PhD, engineer with the Los Angeles County Fire Department and assistant adjunct professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA; and Darin Wallentine, deputy fire chief of administrative services for the Sarasota County Fire Department in Florida.
Among many ongoing areas of research, Dr. Haynes works closely with the Tucson Fire Department to provide mental health services for firefighters, who often experience unusual levels of stress on the job. She worked with the Tucson Fire Department to develop a Peer Operational Support Team, or POST, where trained peers connect with their colleagues to provide resources after potentially traumatic calls.
“I am fortunate to work with Tucson Fire, and the collaborative mental health programming we implemented has made a difference,” Dr. Haynes said. “Our POST program has bridged employees to mental health care and reduced the stigma sometimes associated with seeking care.”
Moving forward, researchers at the center will build on existing partnerships and expand collaborations with other fire departments and wildland firefighting agencies, growing their reach and expertise to change policy and practice that will lead to better health outcomes for firefighters.
“All of us in the college are very proud of what our faculty and their firefighter colleagues have accomplished,” said Iman Hakim, MD, PhD, dean of the Zuckerman College of Public Health, “They have been at the forefront of firefighter health research in many ways, with strong partners in the Tucson Fire Department, and they are really making a difference. I’m very pleased that the new center will provide a focus for this expertise and continue our progress to keep firefighters healthy.”