Should we mandate firefighter health, fitness?

Deciding how much of a firefighter's health should be personal responsibility and how much should be mandated is a tricky proposition

The tragic story of Houston firefighting cadet Steven Whitfield II's line-of-duty death during a training exercise opened some unexpected debates. I say unexpected as the discussions raised are only loosely tied to Whitfield's death.

By all accounts, Whitfield was in peak physical shape and health when he collapsed unexpectedly during an obstacle-course evolution. And, he was a cadet going through Houston's fire academy.

So it struck me as odd that some on the department began calling for mandatory fitness testing and physicals for firefighters — odd in that neither would have prevented his death.

In short, some firefighters are calling for mandatory annual physicals and fitness testing without punishment for those who fail. The department already offers, but doesn't require, free annual physicals for firefighters.

Regardless of the circumstances, this is an important discussion for the fire service. And if you set aside the dynamics of collective bargaining, this issue boils down to a decision we need to make as a fire service and as a society.

If firefighters are fully informed about what is good and what is bad for their well-being, will they make the right life choices? And, if they don't make the right choices and everyone else has some financial stake in those choices, should those right choices be mandated?

In her recent piece, columnist Sara Jahnke compared tobacco smoking in the fire service with that in the general population and rightly says that we all know smoking is bad for our health. In a career firefighter setting, health insurance costs to members will be somewhat influenced by its use — smokers will likely use it more. In a volunteer setting, a smoker who can't perform at a peak level could affect the safety of others.

The same is true for exercise and, to a lesser extent, diet. We all have some skin in the game.

These aren't new questions for the fire service or the larger population. Differing views on how much government should control our lives is a chief reason for our current political division — the left calls for less control on abortion and more control on guns; the right calls for the opposite.

On the one hand, behavior can be guided by culture. Here are two examples.

While smoking is banned in fire stations, the firefighting culture has played a role in reducing smoking more than the general population. And a fire officer from England told me several years ago that they had fewer fires because the culture made it an embarrassment for civilians to have a house fire.

On the other hand, mandates have worked.

Few are likely to argue that rules requiring everyone in a vehicle be restrained, and that children have special seats, is overreaching or ineffective. Likewise, rules governing how long an over-the-road trucker can drive without rest are good for all.

There are no easy answers and any solution will likely be a compromise. Yet health and fitness are among the most important issues facing the fire service — so the debate needs to continue.

For us, it may come down to the notion that the best way to avoid regulation is to self-regulate.

I am confident that the fire service, as we did with smoking, will do a better job of striking a compromise on the right level of regulation than will the general public.

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