Firefighter fitness, tobacco rules are good in the long run

Forcing firefighters to exercise and abstain from tobacco is not the best way to sell better health and job performance, but may be necessary initially


It can be difficult to accept being told what to do.

I recall when passenger vehicles first came out with warning lights and alarms indicating seat belts were not in use. I recall the too-common practice of latching the belt and sitting on top of it as a way to quiet the alarm.

For a variety of reasons, that getting around the seat belt rarely happens any more.

Firefighters often do what we are told without question. It may be wearing all PPE on scene, not freelancing, or loading hose a certain way. How often is anyone disciplined for not wearing bunker pants to a fire?

Other orders fall into a more gray area and understandably get more pushback from firefighters. We've seen several stories in the past few days about resistance to mandatory health and wellness activities for firefighters.

You'd be hard-pressed to make a rational argument that avoiding tobacco use and getting regular exercise has no positive effect on a firefighter's health, quality of life, longevity and job performance. Yet, as we've seen in the stories out of Ohio and Florida, telling firefighters they can never use tobacco and must workout x-number of hours per shift, rubs them the wrong way.

I'd likely react the same way, and I'm not a smoker.

It is no surprise the unions pushed back against those rules. And even when the rules are in place, they don't always work.

In his most recent column, our fitness expert, Bryan Fass, reflected on a department he visited with mandatory workout requirements. What he found was a mixture of firefighters fully engaged in fitness and others going through the motions and doing the bare minimum.

As he points out, for a fitness program to prevent injury, it must be designed to train for the job rather than follow a gym-workout mentality. It's partly a mindset problem. Or, as with most things in the fire service, it's cultural.

In Georgia, firefighters have been engaged in a mandatory fitness program for a few months. They admit that it got off to a bumpy start, but now the firefighters are onboard and seeing benefits from the program.

It is going to take some time to get past the "they can't tell me what to do" mentality. Those rules are probably necessary to improve firefighter health and wellness. And probably too, it will take incentives and positive reinforcement to change the culture to where the rules are no longer necessary.

We've likely come to the point where whole generations have been buckled into vehicles since birth. Clicking in is their normal. And hopefully someday, regular exercise and tobacco avoidance will be the firefighter's normal.

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