White Shirt Fitness
There are numerous “hot topics” that face leaders in the fire service right now, and it does not take much to stir up a heated debate among “brothers” around a station or on the Internet. Firefighters are very passionate in their beliefs, and if you want to know what they think, generally all you have to do is ask them. Bring up simple topics like vertical ventilation and smooth bore nozzles and prepare for some feisty debate and war stories that may seem a little more than tall tales.
Want a challenge with a little more heat? How about science and firefighting or even the topic of SLICE RS and DICER VS. Regardless of your stance, a simple picture of a house fire brings out the questioning of manhood, our obligation to society, and the softening of the fire service. At the end of the day, no matter your stance on commonly debated fire service issues, there is a topic that all of us agree is important yet many cannot agree on how to fix it: Health and fitness in the fire service.
I recently wrote an article for the IAFC On-Scene titled “What’s your Safety and health Priority?” In my estimation, this is a straight forward topic, yet most departments struggle with to it some degree.
Why is fitness such a difficult topic for the fire service? We know the physical performance requirements of our job, and we all know which individuals in our organizations cannot perform these requirements or who pose the greatest risk for cardiac and other health related diseases. The question is, why do we choose not to mention it to them or hold them accountable?
I want to approach this topic from a Fire Chief’s perspective and offer a couple insights to help move this conversation to the next level: The “remember when” phase. For example, remember when we did not work out on duty? Remember when the chiefs never did PT or annual physical performance tests?
1) Why are we afraid to use words like shall and mandatory when it comes to fitness? We utilize in other areas of operation such as cleaning a bay or establishing water supply, but when it comes to working out, we shy away from the word mandatory so fast and furious it belongs in a Vin Diesel movie. How dare we tell our personnel that they have to get a physical every year; it’s ludicrous that we expect them to be healthy or want to provide a means to detect unseen health problems such as cancer and heart disease.
Why would we want our personnel to retire healthy? Utilizing the terms “shall” and “mandatory” is necessary, and it’s something that we should not shy away from regardless of how difficult it is because it is not only the right thing to do, but the facts and statistics do not lie.
2) We must prioritize funding for annual physicals. I understand budgets, and I understand fiscal responsibility. All too often I hear department leaders say, “We would implement annual physicals but we cannot afford it.” Can we forego a few things to allocate money towards annual assessments and even more gym equipment for our stations? We would all agree our most important asset is our personnel; let’s treat them like it. If you do not implement annual physicals, you allow personnel to reason them away through “firefighter logic.” Reasons such as, “The man will find out my health records,” “They will tell me I cannot be a firefighter anymore,” or my favorite, “If I die of heart attack on duty, I am a LODD and my family gets all of the benefits.” Really? Why give these levels of common sense a choice.
“Be the example” and “lead from the front” are just two examples of Leadership 101 that tend to fall on deaf ears when it comes to working out. There are a few chiefs that will show up and run with their personnel, but how many will show up at work out time or participate in active functions such as stair climbs. Many chiefs see physical fitness as their weakness, and their egos will not allow them to fail in front of their personnel. Part of “leading by example” is recognizing that, as chiefs, we are not exempt from the “shalls”. Firefighter health and wellness, as much as anything else, needs support from the top in order to be successful.
Making fitness mandatory, and participating in all of your department’s requirements is not easy, but it must be done. You are not alone - the entire fire service is facing this challenge, and we can and must do better if we are to substantially reduce health related LODDs.
This article was written by Firefighter Functional Training Panel Member Fire Chief Jake Rhoades of Kingman Fire Department, AZ