Faced with one of the most demanding jobs around, firefighters are trained to act in dangerous and volatile situations. Entering unfamiliar structures that are actively on fire with a ton of heavy gear giving limited mobility, is the number one dangerous situation that comes to mind when thinking about firefighters. But on a daily basis we are presented with a multitude of dangerous encounters. Car wrecks on busy highways, power lines struck down in the crash, taking care of medical patients strung out on drugs, trauma victims at the scene of a shooting, or rescuing someone from a collapsed trench. These are just a few of the scenarios that firefighters must be prepared to face every time we clock in for shift. But what if one of the most dangerous encounters we may face occur right within our own body? Firefighting is a physically demanding job. There may be some downtime in between calls but when the tones drop, it becomes very demanding, very quick. Firefighters need more than just the mental and skills training to be successful; they need to be physically healthy themselves.
Everyone seems shocked when they hear word that a firefighter has collapsed following working a major incident. Most people think that a fire or accident is the most likely culprit but most often is a cardiac related incident. Personal health is key for anyone. Firefighters are not exempt. In a recent study, the CDC discovered that over 70% of firefighters in the US were overweight and/or obese¹. This number is very alarming. Every day we hear about how America is facing a crisis with obesity and subsequent issues but we don’t think of it affecting our protective services. A range of reasoning could be applied as to why these numbers are so high. Maybe it is a slower department and the crews don’t get much physical activity. Flip that argument around: it’s a very busy service and they don’t have time to fix healthy meals. Or maybe their department doesn’t have a budget for workout equipment. Perhaps there is an overall culture of indifference; to each their own. Regardless of the reasoning it is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.
When you are young, you often have the idea that you can fix things later on in life. While that is true in some instances, health is usually not in that category. We can do some major damage to our bodies and set ourselves up for some disease processes by our food choices and activity levels. Now genetics does still play a role and nutrition and exercise cannot be blamed for all. But if you make the choice to eat poorly, rarely exercise, and never lose those “extra” pounds, then you cannot really be surprised when you end up with some related disease. Just what are some of those diseases²?
Per an annual report, heart attacks were the most frequent cause of death in firefighter fatalities in 2014³. The stress endured during fighting fires causes a tremendous workload on the heart. Performing CPR is another time when a huge workload occurs. Firefighters go through many hours of rigorous training. People have even collapsed during and following training due to the stress.
So what can be done to help firefighters start living a healthier life? First thing that needs to occur is recognition there is a problem. Being overweight to many is a joke, or simply just a part of life. But as a firefighter you must understand that although it is important for everyone to be a healthy weight and stay active, it is imperative for you. We put our bodies through tremendous conditions of stress and strain. Dangerous scenarios cause massive amounts of adrenaline to course through your veins. We require our hearts to go from operating at a level adequate to supplying our bodies with its needs to sit and watch a football game to carrying 80+ lbs of gear up multiple steps, within a matter of minutes. If you have “extra” weight, your heart is having to work even harder. Just because you have made numerous runs in the past without a problem doesn’t mean your body will not give out on the next one. Make the choice to start with small changes. Change one meal a day to smaller portions. Move on to healthier options. Look up simple exercises that use your body weight, no fancy equipment needed. Encourage others to do the same. Firefighters are notoriously competitive; start a friendly wager on who can lose the most weight. You and your coworkers approach administration about starting a Wellness Initiative program. Human Resource departments like these programs because they usually mean lower insurance rates.
Remember that this isn’t about landing on the cover of a calendar. Although maybe that can be your motivation. It’s about being able to do the job you love to do. It’s about knowing you are doing everything you can to give your best. You wouldn’t allow your rig or a piece of equipment to be subpar. If something needed to be fixed, you would take the steps to insure it was ready and in working order. Your body is no different. Engines and hose lines can be replaced. You can’t.
¹CDC: More than 70% of Firefighters Overweight, Obese.
²What Are the Health Risks of Overweight and Obesity?
³Annual report on firefighter fatalities in the United States.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He was the Chief Executive Officer with 360 Wellness Inc (www.360wellness.org) and currently the Vice President of Business Development of the Frontline Program (www.frontlinerehab.com) at Advanced Health & Education (www.advhealth.com). Lamplugh is also nationally recognized in Crisis Stress Intervention through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Lamplugh hosts his own talk show called "Firefighter Wellness Radio" (Fire Engineering Blog Talk) with Fire Engineering. He has helped hundreds of firefighters, police officers, veterans, EMS personnel, and civilians nationwide find help for addiction, alcoholism, PTSD, and mental health support. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org