A Minnesota firefighter started a 200-mile walk on Sunday to raise awareness of high mortality rates among fellow firefighters.
Doug Foote, 52, a firefighter in Chanhassen, started his trek — wearing his firefighting gear — from the fire station in Marietta in far western Minnesota. He’s planning to arrive at the Minnesota Fallen Firefighter Memorial at the State Capitol in St. Paul by the end of week.
Communities along the route include Madison, Montevideo, Hutchinson, Chanhassen, Minnetonka and Minneapolis.
Strenuous physical activity isn’t unusual for Foote; he’s taken part in several endurance competitions.
To better take care of his feet during the 200-mile walk he’s wearing sneakers instead of boots. And he’s wearing a slightly stripped down version of his actual uniform to avoid heat exhaustion.
But the fact he’s a firefighter was unmistakable as he hit the road on Sunday morning. Foote said prior to the walk that he’s been anxious about the journey, but it’s important to him.
“I just don’t want to fail people, that’s the bottom line,” Foote said. “I’m putting myself out there and you run the risk of failure and letting people down. Come hell or high water, I’m gonna finish the walk. If something happens to me, I will eventually still finish the walk. You make a commitment ... like I am to my fellow firefighting brothers and sisters.”
The walk supports the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative (MnFIRE), an organization dedicated to providing the state’s firefighters with resources and tools to prioritize and protect their health. It’s focused on three main areas: cancer, cardiac issues and emotional trauma. MnFIRE launched a 24-hour peer support hotline for firefighters struggling with mental health issues in 2018.
George Esbensen, president of MnFIRE and a retired Eden Prairie fire chief, said that during his 32-year career there were moments he experienced that weighed heavily on him and other firefighters.
“I went to countless fatalities and was right there at the moment when somebody took their last breath or saw them in a very messy situation — car accidents, gunshots, all kinds of horrible things,” Esbensen said. “I didn’t come out of the womb with some special genetics that made me impervious to seeing other people’s very worst and tragic days.”
Esbensen said that Foote’s journey aims to uplift firefighters and their families who are looking for support, as well as symbolizing the longevity of their careers during which many experience a toll on their physical and mental health.
“It’s quite the journey for Doug,” Esbensen said. “He’s an amazing athlete, he’s an amazing firefighter. He has a passion for his fellow firefighters and their well-being, and we’re just so glad that he’s willing to undertake this and help us spread the message about firefighter wellness and stepping up for your local firefighters.”
Foote plans to meet with other firefighters and their families along the way. In addition to raising awareness about mental trauma, cardiac health and cancer among firefighters, he’s also advocating for providing additional funding and resources for fire departments in smaller communities — departments that are mostly volunteer-based.
The start of the walk also coincides with the weekend on which the nation marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, in which several hundred firefighters died.
Foote acknowledged 9/11 was the event that compelled him to become a firefighter.
“For me the best way to honor them is to focus on the living, and driving firefighter deaths due to these three mortalities down to zero,” he said. “So mourn the lost, but focus on the living and preventing their loss.”
Foote is taking pledges for his walk via the MnFIRE website.