It's time to get real about firefighter fitness and nutrition

Reintroducing NFPA standards and fire service initiatives to incorporate nutrition and fitness in your firefighter wellness program

There is a lot of talk about exercise and nutrition in the fire and EMS services, yet a large portion of the talk, is just that; talk. When will we truly take exercise and nutrition seriously? The excuses are not worth the mortality they will bring:

  • We are only volunteers.
  • We can’t afford it.
  • If I enforce physicals, I won’t have any members left.

Enough of the all too familiar fake-outrage and fake-talk, let’s do the right thing here folks.

Pay more attention to fitness and nutrition in your department.
Pay more attention to fitness and nutrition in your department. (Photo/San Bernardino County Fire)

The real need for fitness – not just the physiologic need, but the job-need – gets lost for many, in the allure of being a firefighter. Newsflash – swinging on that portable strap, wearing that “soul-crusher” T-shirt and slapping a Maltese cross on the window isn’t really who we are and is not nearly the sum of what’s needed to be an effective firefighter.

I’ve spoken with many firefighters who scoff at the notion of regular fitness, throwing around their literal weight as evidence that they can knock down anything and put out anything they’re confronted by. The bravado is stark and has been deadly. This arrogant bluster, is the hardest part of the fire service fitness and nutrition culture that we need to change today, right now.

NFPA, IAFC, NVC resources for firefighter fitness programs

Allow me to re-introduce you to the following NFPA standards, valuable resources that detail specific minimum requirements for the development, implementation and management of fire department health, wellness and fitness programs:

Just thinking about implementing these programs can be daunting, however, not nearly as daunting as losing members of your department to health-related illness or death.

Fortunately, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and others have done a lot of homework to help you chart a course forward with NFPA 1500, 1582 and 1583 programs, see:

Incorporate physicals in firefighter wellness programs

As we look at the firefighter success tetrahedron, physical strength is one of the pillars necessary to achieve our mission, and is directly impacted by fitness and nutrition programs (or the lack thereof).

Not every individual volunteer fire department or even every paid department is going to be able to make the investments necessary with the snap of a couple fingers. Some may take years to plan and secure approval for funding, while others will find grant funding and move quickly, and still others will find free or reduced cost opportunities. Whatever your program looks like, or wherever it comes from, it is essential to include cardiovascular exercise, resistance exercise and flexibility exercise.

Entry and annual department physicals should be a standard bearer as part of these physical fitness program implementations.

While physicals are second-nature to many, some chiefs, unions and associations still fight department physical implementation. It’s especially disconcerting when the prevailing reasoning espoused is “it will get rid of too many members.” Your firefighters are your most important resource and should be in the best possible physical condition they can. Their ability to be well, to rescue others and to be able to be rescued are life-and-death issues, not a membership concern.

Reducing firefighter injuries

I have recently been working with John Mayer, DC, PhD, CCRP, FACSM; and Charity Lane, MS, MA, CPT, USAW, with their work on behalf of the U.S. Spine & Sport Foundation to reduce back injuries and improve wellness in the firefighting community. They have been working to raise awareness and improve effectiveness of fire service fitness programs.

In 2014, FEMA awarded Mayer and the University of South Florida a $1.3 million AFG grant to expand research and prevent additional injuries, allowing the team to launch a multi-year effort to reduce firefighter lower-back related injuries.

Four departments with a total of 78 stations, including Tampa Fire Rescue, St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and the Temple Terrace Fire Department have joined the regional effort, currently in its third phase, to test effectiveness. This has manifested today, into regional wellness-fitness effort across the Tampa Bay Region of Florida, endorsed by the Florida Professional Firefighters and the Florida Division of the State Fire Marshal.

Their findings to date have been enlightening and unfortunately predictable. Understanding that firefighters need such programs, their base findings confirmed that there are four basic barriers to adhering to exercise and fitness program success: time, support, resources, and motivation.

Basically captured, if not given the time, resources, and support, members tend to lose any motivation to exercise (or do anything else). Giving your folks the opportunity to exercise as part of the course of their daily busy should be a no-brainer, however I find that many department management teams don’t support on-duty exercise. The reasons tend to be justified internally through fear of risk management concerns. The risk of not having a well thought-out and monitored program far outweighs internal exercise risk concerns.

I’ve had the opportunity to see the really good (e.g., my recent visit with the San Antonio Fire Department stand-alone Wellness Center, which brings occupational-physicals, fitness, and recovery together in one facility operated directly by certified SAFD employees) and the really not-so-good in fitness programs and peer support programs in the fire service.

Standardization in firefighter wellness programs

The surest ways to sabotage a wellness program is to provide conflicting information and fail to implement a standardized approach. It is extremely important to provide the same (or at least very similar) equipment and program guidance to all involved. Including hands-on certified peer fitness instruction, whether personal, or in crews or groups, goes a long way towards ensuring standardization and providing credibility to your program.

Chiefs need to find cheerleaders to promote the fitness program – they’re out there, just ask. Engaging those cheerleaders and motivating others to participate is part of the chief’s message to the department; exercise and fitness is critical to your success, both personally and professionally.

Self-motivation and improvement might not be enough incentive to keep people engaged. Find out what works for your folks – find the incentives that finally kick in their internal wellness;

  • Age-based performance awards.
  • Leave or monetary allowances.
  • Internal and external fitness competitions.

These are all effective ways to incentivize people to get involved. My experience has shown that most won’t care so much about the incentives once they get going. Combining resources can be another effective method – essentially cobbling together what you have into a regional fitness approach – share with your neighbors!

Firefighter nutrition

We know nutrition can be a challenge for on-duty crews in busy firehouses, and busy is unfortunately a routine excuse for fast food.

Small plates, small meals, several times a day provides a good balance. Fish, turkey, eggs, meats, dairy or beans are good options for complete, lean proteins. You should ensure vegetables are included with every meal. Fats are not necessarily your enemy. Eating a moderate combination of healthy fats, like coconut oils, nuts, olives, olive oil, fish oil and flax oil, is part of the overall healthy diet.

For all the talk about carbohydrates, the easy way to look at carbohydrate intake is to consume carbs when your body needs fuel – as in, before or just after a workout. Making sure your meal components are prepared and available will help limit your desires to reach for whatever’s in front of you – stick to the plan.

Portion control is a huge part of the diet. Use the hand method:

  • Your palm determines protein portions.
  • Your fist determines vegetable portions.
  • Your cupped-hand determines carb portions.
  • Your thumb determines your fat portions.

I recall coming up in the firehouse that lunch was intense – a lot of food, quick and dirty, and off to the next run. I’d surround my plate and shovel food in like it was going out of style. A couple of simple ideas helped me slow down. Presuming you’re using utensils to eat, put the fork down and finish chewing each bite, before you scoop the next nugget. Putting the fork down and finishing each bite helps you slow down, which helps your body process the food so you’ll actually feel full when your body is truly full. When you feel full, stop eating and put some trash (e.g., a napkin or wrapper) on your plate. I know firefighters are tough, but I haven’t met many that will eat off of a trash-filled plate.

Physical strength, fitness and nutrition are not mutually exclusive. Our outrage should be directed at how out-of-shape we are. The statistics don’t lie – over 50 percent of line-of-duty deaths are cardiovascular related. Thankfully, few of our LODDs are a result of burn or inhalation injuries – which should be the case, especially because we spend a tremendous amount of our energy and programs on preventative work. We clearly need to direct more energy and resources to fitness and nutrition.

Efforts like those ongoing with the IAFC and IAFF as well as the health and wellness initiative of the USSSF are a start, and will have positive impact. I urge you to pay more attention to fitness and nutrition in your department, while you continue to focus on all of the other important topics we face every day. Enough of the “fake-talk” – let’s get to it! Take care, be safe and stay smart!

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