A new approach to responder fitness

There is a big push nationally to improve wellness, fitness, and safety and it cannot come at a better time

When I entered the world of public safety more than 12 years ago there was a persona or a strut, call it a calm and cool street smart.

As a young medic it was something I envied yet did not fully understand, but it was something that I craved to have. Having grown up in a busy urban EMS system, I was taught and directed by a steady stream of wise and experienced paramedics, firefighters and EMTs.

I was taught the way it's done and, as I have learned, it's the way that it has always been done. After a few years on the street as a part-time paramedic, I came to realize that the way that things are done are definitely not the way things should be done.

For instance, the stretcher was a source of trepidation because no one had taken the time to teach me the proper way to handle it. Using the cot seemed to be an assumption on the part of my teachers and field training officers, and many of us green medics just had to figure it out.

The same held true for patient handling, specifically transfers and the arduous task of lifting a patient from the floor onto the stretcher; we just got it done and that means as fast as possible. I think we caused a lot of lateral whiplash to out infirmed patients.

Fast forward to the present day and I have become one of the few voices out there calling for change. We as a profession must stop doing things because that is the way we have always done them.

Doing the same thing again and again expecting a different result is pure insanity. Take a look around, look at your friends, co-workers, and maybe yourself. Stay in public safety long enough and a few predictable things happen. Stress, call volume, fatigue, and poor nutrition all take a cumulative toll.

You are no longer a lean, mean EMS or firefighting machine; you have slowly morphed into an overweight and sedentary professional. You possess all the necessary tools to get the job done: experience, street skills, a sixth sense honed from thousands of calls, and that swagger that you so desired as a newbie. But achieving all that has also taken its toll on your health, fitness and wellness.

There is a big push nationally to improve responder wellness, fitness, and safety and it cannot come at a better time. But is it possible to simply write a curriculum, train some facilitators, teach some courses and expect ingrained change to occur? It's not, in my humble opinion. Sure, there may be some outliers and obvious successes but, as I have found in countless discussions, after a short time the crews will fall right back into those old habits.

Responders, we need to look at this problem differently. First, responders must be taught and encouraged to not eat the foods that they do. I have heard countless excuses and justifications about why responders eat as they do, and I have to tell you it is nothing but laziness. I teach an entire course on how to stay healthy, eat well, and keep the pounds off while on duty, and I can attest that it's not difficult, expensive, or time consuming. Responders must be taught how to survive their job through integrating good nutrition while on duty.

Second, responders need to be taught some basic on-duty fitness tricks. There are six stretches that must be done throughout the shift. By doing these simple stretches between calls (using the back of the truck as your stretching station) you can drastically reduce your chance of injury. As an added benefit, teaching responders public-safety-specific exercises will reduce soft tissue injury.

Responders can also do a series of exercises on-duty and in uniform that will help them stay fit. Worried about equipment or having to secure a grant? No problem! A gym can be put into a station for less than $300. A resistance band, a stability ball, some dumbbells, a tennis ball and a Frisbee are all you need.

Exercising on duty must be considered standard operating procedure. For those administrators or HR folks worried about liability from an on-duty injury, I ask: what does all those back injuries, medical claims, overtime, shift differentials, un-manned units cost? Worrying about an employee getting injured while exercising totally misses the point.

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