4 steps to better firefighter safety through fitness

Directing firefighters to better health and fitness in the station will keep them safer on the fireground

Lead, guide and direct. Those are the three legs of the stool upon which successful company officers stand. We may think that these roles of good supervision are applicable only on the emergency scene, but we would be deluding ourselves.

The company officer must be equally diligent in fulfilling those roles as they develop and maintain the readiness of their personnel. And that includes ensuring that each member of the team is physically prepared to do their job — this is a safety and health issue. But it's not a job without challenges.

From the apparatus that they ride in, to the SCBA and turnout gear they wear, to the tools and equipment they use, today's firefighters are better protected from the dangers of firefighting than any previous generation. But the safety benefits of all of that stuff can be greatly reduced when the firefighter is not in good physical condition.

Step one is to make sure members get yearly health assessments. Line-of-duty deaths in the fire service from medical causes like heart disease and heart attacks have overtaken those related to fire combat operations.

Getting the results of that outside-looking-in assessment by a physician each year should be a critical component of any firefighter's physical training program. And these exams are great for setting baseline health data for understanding what normal looks like and when it changes.

Conversely, nobody should know more about their on-going physical condition than the individual firefighter. And guys, I'm speaking specifically to you because we men tend to not pay enough attention to our physical health on a regular basis — just ask your spouse or significant other.

Peer power
People are influenced by the actions of our peers, and firefighters are not immune. The group camaraderie that is cultivated by the typical career fire station environment — eating, sleeping, training and working together in close quarters — has many benefits, but is also subject to drawbacks.

One of those drawbacks is that more than a few firefighters bend to negative peer pressure regarding their health and fitness for duty. Volunteer and combination departments are by no means immune to this phenomenon.

Karlie Moore earned her doctorate in exercise science and nutrition and is a specialist in firefighter health who's been helping firefighters improve their health since 2007. She is also the owner of Fit for Duty Consulting and a firefighter's wife.

"Throughout the years that I've been working with firefighters, I've gleaned that they all know that being healthy will benefit their work life, their home life and their life after retirement," she wrote. "There is no shortage of alarming facts about on-duty heart attacks and early deaths after retirement to make that clear. Yet, even armed with this knowledge, many firefighters do not choose to safeguard their health."

Everyone's doing it
Firefighters generally have two sources of dissatisfaction on the job, the way things are and change. The company officer can have a positive influence on peer pressure, but it's not how most of us think.

Researchers at Columbia University have discovered that if a leader wants to make meaningful and lasting cultural changes in an organization — to really change how the people in an organization think and behave — it's not going to be by changing what's inside of people or appealing to their inner sense of virtue (what's right). Instead, the leader just has to convince them that everybody else is doing it.

People don't change their behavior because it's the right thing to do, they change (for better or for worse) because they want to fit in, that is, be normal. Look at the dramatic drop in the number of people who smoke in the United States.

Beginning with the U.S. Surgeon General's 1964 Report on Smoking and Health, public attitudes toward smoking began to shift: it became an increasingly atypical and socially unacceptable activity. Most people who quit smoking did so, not because quitting was the right thing, but because smoking had become the wrong thing.

Here are four steps company officers can take to improve crew safety through better fitness.

1. Educate yourself and your firefighters
There's more information than ever available to us on nutrition, diet, exercise and weight loss that specifically focuses on the needs of firefighters. Make it a group project for you and your crew to collect and analyze what those sources have to offer.

Then have each member of your crew (and you) develop a series of short presentations of no more than 20 minutes where each crew member gives their synopsis of the why, what and how that information can be used to make improvements in everyone's workouts or diet at the station and at home.

2. Develop a plan and take action
One of the most important decisions made in every career fire station when the shift begins is answering the question: What are we eating today?

What if one of your first crew fitness projects was to plan your lunch and dinner menus for the next three tours of duty? Use the resources you've consulted in step one to develop well-rounded and nutritious meals.

Starting small and getting some success under your belts using a topic near and dear to the hearts of all firefighters (and their stomachs) can pay big dividends that make it easier to approach other topics like group workout routines.

3. Think many, not only one
One of the realities of trying to get a workout in during a tour of duty is that when the time comes to work out — in comes a call. In busy fire stations this occurrence, over time, can become a ready excuse for not working out. No sense in trying to work out because it will just be interrupted, goes the logic.

Instead of one workout, look to your informational resources to find shorter-duration workout routines, say 10-15 minutes each that can be employed at various times during the day.

4. Advocate a wellness and fitness program
If your department currently has a program, use your research to make suggestions for improvements. If it does not have a program, engage your department's leadership to begin developing one. The International Association of Fire Fighters has a website, Wellness Fitness Initiative Resource, that is a great one-stop-shop for information.

The WFI Resource was developed by the IAFF and the International Association of Fire Chiefs under the Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative. The WFI Resource lets you search for successful wellness-fitness programs that you can learn from by fire department city and these initiative components.

  • Medical.
  • Fitness.
  • Injury prevention and rehabilitation.
  • Behavioral health.
  • Data collection.

Tools and ideas used by fire departments to justify costs and evaluate and implement a wellness-fitness program are also included.

To address issues specific to volunteer firefighters, the United States Fire Administration has worked with the National Volunteer Fire Council to develop a Health and Wellness Guide for the Volunteer Fire and Emergency Services. The guide covers these four main topics.

  • An overview of national wellness initiatives affecting the volunteer fire service.
  • Common issues and factors that impact firefighter health and wellness.
  • Example health and wellness programs from across the country.
  • Information on developing and implementing a health and wellness program in a volunteer-staffed department.

Leading, guiding and directing firefighters to better health and fitness in the station will keep them safer on the fireground. 

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