“We can’t be operationally effective without our health.”
I am paraphrasing Chief Bobby Halton when I say that we will never be able to mitigate all of the risks we face as firefighters (and we should know and accept these risks before we take the oath). As a firefighter, putting yourself in harm’s way to save another is not only something you agree to do, you will also take action if and when that moment comes.
When it comes to firefighting, our passion for the job is usually not a problem. Emotions are a good thing sometimes. When properly channeled, they inspire, they generate healthy debate, and they drive us to perform in the most arduous of conditions. Consider the ongoing “discussions” about fire dynamics research. It has been quite a while since I have seen the level of emotion displayed among our brothers and sisters. In fact, I would suggest that it is unprecedented in our profession.
Just as ignorance of the law is not a valid defense, categorizing your health risk factors as a risk we just accept is intolerable. For decades, we in the fire service have been fed data and statistics that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt how important our own physical and mental health is to our career longevity and retirement. Each year, health-related deaths top the list of LODDs. The U.S. Department of Labor tells us that firefighters have a 200 to 300 percent greater risk of dying of a heart attack than any other professional group (read the article here). Our colleagues in the fire service research community have dedicated countless hours to research and data collection to determine the severity of risks we face as firefighters when it comes to stress and overexertion, occupational exposures, and various social and behavioral factors that affect firefighter health.
Knowing what we know, why aren’t more firefighters as passionate about our own physical and mental health as we are about how we put out fires?
The physiolgical strain of firefighting affects every body system. (Courtesy, D. Smith, PhD, et.al, 2010).
About a year ago, I wrote about The 3 A’s of Firefighter Fitness Success. I believe it is your personal attitude, accountability, and actions that make the difference in your level of success in the fire service—and your success is definitively connected to your own personal health. I encourage you to give it a read, take some time for personal introspection, and implement the concepts found within. As firefighters, we simply cannot disregard our own health and fitness and expect to perform at an optimal level.
We must bridge the gap between agreement and action when it comes to the importance of firefighter health.
The movement to create a healthier fire service happens one firefighter at a time. If you have already taken steps to improve your fitness for duty, I commend you. But you still have work to do. You must act as a champion for firefighter health and wellness. Continue to lead by example in your own organization, and promote fitness as a requirement of the job regardless of status as volunteer or career.
If you have not yet taken the first steps to becoming a healthier firefighter, then start today! Regardless of how many years you have on the job, you can still make a change that will result in a healthier you, and you will become an inspiration those around you along the way.
Be safe, and stay healthy.
Dan Kerrigan, EFO, CFO is co-author of Firefighter Functional Fitness and Assistant Fire Marshal, East Whiteland Fire Department (PA). With over 29 years in the fire service, he is a passionate advocate for firefighter health and fitness and regularly researches, presents and is published on firefighter fitness, health & wellness.
The Director of The First Twenty’s Firefighter Functional Training Advisory Panel, he also works closely with the IAFC, NFFF, and NVFC on strategies to improve fitness and reduce health-related LODDs in the fire service. He is a frequent contributor to Fire Engineering Magazine and Firefighter Toolbox.
Dan 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. He was the 2014 recipient of the IAFC-VCOS Emerging Leader Scholarship sponsored by Dr. Richard Gasaway.
Connect with Dan on Twitter (@dankerrigan911 & @FirefighterFFit), on LinkedIn, Facebook, and at FirefighterFunctionalFitness.com.