5 components of a wellness initiative

Help your agency to breed a healthier, fitter, more productive, and less injured responder

By Bryan Fass

An unfortunate reality in public safety is that many of the parts that make up the whole are weak. Just as a chain is only as strong as the weakest link, so is public safety as good as the weakest responder. What I am referring to is our culture of entitlement. Perhaps that is not the best word to describe the psychology of many responders, but the truth remains that we as a profession are lazy.

Sitting for long hours, poor posture, extreme working conditions, and lifting and bending will cause pain and injury. A career in public safety should not just involve surviving it, you have to live with your body when it's all said and done. As a reactive profession our psyche apparently dictates that we need to wait for an injury to occur to do something about it.

Wellness initiatives that all departments and agencies freely acknowledge are needed are seldom undertaken. Even when they are, employee participation is poor and administration follow through is half hearted. Over the past 15 years of my career as a clinical Athletic Therapist/Trainer I have seen countless patients thrive and excel with wellness and fitness.

They excelled for the simple fact that a standard was established and a culture was created to reinforce the principles of wellness. Of the departments that I have spoken to and consulted with the few that have drastically increased fitness and wellness succeeded by establishing a culture of wellness early on. This culture breeds a healthier, fitter, more productive, and less injured responder.

Think of it this way: the average career of a medic in a busy system is about ten years. When a wellness imitative is established and injury prevention through fitness is practiced it will only take two to three generations of employees to have a well followed and accepted wellness program. As new employees come in and 'incumbent' employees remain, that culture will be reinforced to the new employees. It's up to the individual departments how to incentivize the incumbents to follow through or to screen each employee annually to keep the 'ball rolling' but consistency and follow through are the key.

When designing a wellness program please go forward with the understanding that public safety is like no other profession. The 'off the shelf' wellness programs designed for corporate or factory workers will not fly in our world. There are five components of a wellness initiative for public safety that need to be addressed.

  • Screening and Testing: All employees need to be initially screened and then re-tested yearly for basic biometrics. Height, weight, BP, heart rate, body fat and circumference measurements allow us to follow trend. A well designed program will also screen for functional movements specific to the job along with job specific fitness tests.
  • Employee input: Very few programs will succeed if the field employees think they are having it forced upon them. Small group employee meetings to gather feedback on 'corporate culture' and fears will go a long way. If we can achieve greater than 75 percent employee backing and understanding, than our chances of succeeding long term are much higher.

  • Administration participation: Department officers and administration must not only participate in the program, they must also back it 100 percent. The old adage that doo doo flows down hill holds true only in this case, wellness flows down hill: lead by example and the troops are more likely to follow.

  • Nutrition: It goes without saying that a wellness program will not succeed unless dietary and nutrition habits are changed. This is a tricky topic since we cannot always just sit and eat — we are on duty and must respond when called. They key here is education. Responders must learn how to eat healthy on duty and off, it's really not hard it just takes some pre-planning. By the way if you kick off wellness week with soda and doughnuts you failed before you started, so make sure everything from the vending machine is off limits while on duty.

  • Fitness and exercise: I could write a book on fitness and exercise for public safety, matter of fact I did! We must acknowledge and understand that there are just certain exercises that cannot be done. Because of the chronic postural stress sustained during a shift many 'fitness' techniques will further encourage pain and injury.

    Please understand that some advanced biomechanical 'corrective exercise' techniques must be employed and practiced to avoid making the problem worse. Allowance needs to be made for crews to stretch and work out on duty, the benefit of preventing multiple career ending injuries far outweighs the risk of a minor one from working out. Encourage employees to follow a protocol designed by a public safety fitness professional to avoid many of the common pitfalls in fitness and exercise.

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