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Avoiding Firefighter Health and Wellness? What’s your Rationale?

For someone like me, it’s hard to fathom that anyone in the fire service could produce an argument against improving the health and fitness of firefighters. The statistics alone tell anyone that will listen it is the most significant barrier to reducing LODDs. Nevertheless, I understand that the issue, sadly, is more complicated than that. As I've said before – it’s personal. 

I hear a whole host of reasons when I ask folks in other departments why annual physicals haven’t been implemented: Cost, lack of consensus on the extent or components of the physical examination, responsibility if something is identified that causes a person to fail the examination, lack of a formal policy, lack of support from the top down, etc. Most of the concerns I hear can be addressed in a logical manner. It takes time. Those that are truly proponents of improving firefighter health and fitness must realize that if there is no process in place, a process must be built that is rooted in buy-in and cooperation from all parties involved. The proverbial “stakeholders” must fully understand the reasoning. They must be allowed to ask questions and raise concerns. In the end, there is no reason to avoid progress towards improved health and fitness; but if you want participation and enthusiasm, you must listen as well as act.

I met with a colleague recently to discuss a proposal to initiate more stringent fitness standards for our county fire instructors and prospective students. As with any new initiative, there are obstacles – but these obstacles can be overcome by sound reasoning and good communication. There are many considerations as to how we will implement this new program. As we chatted, we talked about how to approach this process. We're still doing research, and we are being methodical about it. We want to approach it as a tangible benefit, not a punishment. We want to try to set a positive example for other organizations to consider -- to create a success story, not set people up for failure.

There are even bigger problems though.

While real obstacles are challenging, they are not insurmountable. What is much more difficult to overcome are the nonsensical explanations for refusal to consider annual physicals. Unfortunately, they do exist, and they are more prevalent than you might think.  So, as we talked, we related to each other a few we have actually heard recently:

We might lose members if we make them get physicals.

They might fail the exam.

We’re volunteers. We can’t “make” anyone get a physical.

Our people are worth more to their families if they die on the job than if they die elsewhere.  (Yes, it’s true. It’s been said).

All I do is drive the apparatus. I don’t pack up any more.

Whether you’re the chief, the rookie, or anywhere in between, we all have a responsibility to turn the tide. Using excuses like these is like saying the fire service shouldn't support residential sprinklers because we may not get to go to as many calls!

I can try to help anyone with a valid concern about implementing a new health and wellness component. There are many other colleagues that can and will, too. All we need to know is what your real obstacles are to start the discussion – they are different everywhere, so there is no “one size fits all” solution.

I confess. I have been a bit naïve. I assumed that everyone in the fire service agreed that health and wellness is an important issue. I assumed that everyone would agree that being fit for duty should be viewed as a “requirement” for us. I was wrong. The fact is, although most of you might agree that both these statements are true, there are some that need a serious reality check. Can I guarantee you that physicals and fitness programs will totally eliminate health related LODDs? Of course not. But, if you’re resting on baseless excuses for the reason why you do not move toward implementing health and wellness programs in your organization, you’re adding to the problem, not contributing to the solution, and the time for your reality check is now. 

Dan Kerrigan is a 28-year fire service veteran and an assistant fire marshal/deputy emergency management coordinator and department health and fitness coordinator for the East Whiteland Township Department of Codes and Life Safety in Chester County, Pennsylvania and the Director ofThe First Twenty’s Firefighter Functional Training Advisory Panel. Kerrigan is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master’s Degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership. He is a PA State Fire Academy Suppression Level Instructor as well as an adjunct professor at Anna Maria College, Neumann University, and Immaculata University. Connect with Kerrigan at dkerrigan@eastwhiteland.org, on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @dankerrigan2. Follow The First Twenty on Twitter@thefirsttwenty.

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