Poor firefighter health: Risk with no reward

Bad food, exercise and lifestyle choices will shorten your career and your life; keep on top of all three early

Many firefighters dreamed of joining the service at a very early age and worked diligently to reach the goal of pinning on a Maltese cross badge on their chest one day. Considering all of the entrance-testing hurdles and personal background checks that most firefighters go through, it is one of the most difficult careers to enter.

One well-known fire service icon said, it's easier to enter medical school than to get hired by a metropolitan fire department. There are not many other agencies that use such a rigorous selection process to determine who will wear their uniform and who will not.

Another undeniable personal trait of nearly every newly appointed firefighter is that they enjoy great health. In fact, they are generally much healthier then their civilian counterparts. Most rookies have amazing skills in the areas of strength, stamina and flexibility.

Consider the physical fitness and ability screening testing process (CPAT) that a candidate must successfully complete; it really is no surprise that they are in outstanding physical condition. Candidates who pass the CPAT must be evaluated by a medical doctor.

13 Career Crushers

  • Revenge
  • Discrimination, harassment and hazing  
  • Inattention to details of the organization
  • Troubled personal life
  • Actions not in align with departmental goals and values
  • Declining health
  • Ignoring technology
  • Illegal activity
  • Irreconcilable differences with the boss
  • Lying 
  • Political suicide
  • Political ambition
  • Incompetence

The doctor uses the NFPA 1582 as the benchmark to determine a candidate's overall medical fitness. When new members report for duty, they are in amazing physical shape. Couple their great physical condition with a six-month rigorous fitness program in recruit school, and the finished products are approaching professional athlete status.

Freshman 40
When the new member is assigned to a fire company, the great habits seem to slowly but surely change. Most probies begin to gain weight (fat). I am not aware of a scientific study that backs this. However, some experts have said the first-year weight gain ranges from 15 to 30 pounds, or more.

Generally, fire station meals are outstanding. The cost is very reasonable and the portions are enormous — with the second helpings for the taking. The highly structured exercise regimen of the recruit academy is in the rearview mirror.  

Further, most departments do not give incumbent firefighters fitness tests, adding to the de-motivation to stay fit of duty. The individual member is now responsible to stay in shape with no one watching and seemingly no one caring about physical fitness.

There are different pressures that become the "new booters" priority. The academic exercise of passing a probationary period and preparing for emergency medical technician re-certification move up on the list of worries to maintain employment.

Firefighter's disease
The term for non-specific occupational disease was coined many years ago and described as "firefighter's disease." It's the accumulation of various risk factors that are known to substantially shorten a firefighter's life.

Firefighters are at greater health risk because they conduct the type of work inherent in extinguishing fires, performing under extremely stress conditions, and dealing directly with hazardous materials and other unknown risks.

A few of the projected consequences of firefighter's disease includes a life span 10 years shorter than civilians, a first heart attack in mid-40s; a likelihood of systemic cancers rarely seen in the general population, and a two to six times greater chance to contract cancer of some type. 

Perhaps one of the best arguments for the existence of firefighter's disease comes from a great lecture presented by Capt. Jerry Gray, the hazardous materials commander for the San Francisco Fire Department.

Jerry's story
Capt. Gray spoke about responding to and extinguishing a serious structure fire. He was on the nozzle and moved in very close to apply water at the base of the burning materials. The fire took a few minutes to extinguish followed by a much longer period to overhaul the deep-seated burning embers.

Capt. Gray asked the class if anyone had experienced a similar situation. Every hand in the room of dozens was raised. Next, he described waking-up the following morning with a substantial headache.

He believed a hot shower would remove the grim of the firefight off of his body and bringing some much need relief during his day off. As he showered, he smelled the odors of the fire from the past evening.

Capt. Gray said that the residue in his hair and on his body was just as though he just walked out of the fire environment. He experienced the same conditions over the next four or five days. Again, he questioned the group of young students and everyone acknowledged that they too had the same situation occur.

Microscopic threat
Here's why it happened. When the veteran fire captain was working to knock down the fire, his skin pores opened in response to his core temperature raising.

The junk in the fire area (smoke and gases) collected inside his body at a microscopic level. Each time that Capt. Gray showered, some of the junk was released by the hot water and soap until it was flushed out of his body.

Closing his lecture, Capt. Gray discussed the barrier protection that is offered to a firefighter's ear opening. Simply, there is not very much when it comes to stopping microscopic particles to enter the ear canal. Of course, it's a direct pathway to the brain.

On a purely intuitive level, this is one of the many possible factors that cause healthy people entering the work place to be susceptible to a wide range of illnesses. Why should we allow this to happen to our folks? There has got to be a better way to do business and properly protect our most important resource — our members.

Diet, exercise, lifestyle
Clearly, poor health can be a career crusher, shortening or ending a person's tenure on the department. The best way to avoid this career, and perhaps life, crusher is to be aware of your diet, focus on your exercise regimen and make good lifestyle choices.

The best way to maintain the proper body weight is to eat right; both the amount and types of food need to be considered. As your mom would remind you, "It takes a lean horse to run a long race."

If you body fat exceeds the recommended level (it once was 20 percent for males and 25 percent for females) eat less and eat better foods. If you cannot bend over to tie your shoes comfortably, this is a clue to do something different. Another good indicator is the fit of your clothing. And, of course, the standard bathroom scale is another great way to monitor your weight.

Next, is a regular and realistic exercise program that improves strength, stamina and flexibility. The best programs seem to be those that all members participate in, and are not punitive. If the entire company has an established time set aside for exercise, participation becomes more likely than not.

However, there are no excuses in fighting fires and saving lives, so get that work out in on every shift.

Kick the habit
Finally, lifestyle must be included in any discussion about health and fitness. Habits like cigarette smoking presents a level of risk that the average person should not engage in. Knowing that firefighters are at a higher level of personal risk, I am in favor of signing a contact agreeing to no type of tobacco use from the first day on the job.

Excessive use of alcohol will lead to trouble and illegal drug use of any kind cannot be tolerated. The department should have a comprehensive drug and alcohol screening and testing process, including regular random testing.

Mental health services should be accessible to employees. Excessive stress, divorce, the loss of a loved one and so many other factors require the support of a mental health care professional to assist the member in distress.  

Most high-trust, high-performance departments offer a comprehensive employee-assistance program that help members with smoking cessation, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and everything in between on a highly confidential basis at little or no cost to the member. Many fire departments have health and wellness centers that provide all types of support from exercise facilities to nutrition counseling.

This career crusher may be the most important of the 13. A member's health is directly connected to quality of life and enjoyment as well as performance at work.

A firefighter shows up for work in great condition (both physically and mentally), the goal must be to retire 30 years later in the same or better condition. The knowledge and tools are there for us to use.

Without question, taking care of our most important asset — our selves and our members — is the right thing to do. Be safe out there. 

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