“Only one quarter (27 percent) of fire departments have a basic firefighter fitness and health program, slightly down from 30 percent in 2010.”
-NFPA Needs Assessment, 2015
“…slightly down from 30 percent in 2010”
While it is doubtful that every single department in the country participated in this assessment process, I’m comfortable in saying that the percentage probably wouldn’t go up much (if any), even if they all did.
The truth is, anyone that has been around the fire service for a year or two (maybe less) will agree that while there is a lot to be proud of, there are numerous “wicked problems” we still need to tackle. The battles rage on, depending on where you are…residential sprinklers, proper staffing, fire attack methods, proper training, workplace bullying, diversity and inclusion…the list goes on and on, and these are issues that are not to be taken lightly.
But while all of these issues are critically important, my take is that the most wicked of them all has remained the “pink elephant” in the room for decades:
Firefighter Health and Wellness
Simply put, the time has come for the fire service to prioritize the health and wellness of its firefighters on a national level. While there is national agreement and acceptance that our own health is vitally important to our profession…to our core mission, there is far less tangible action taking place to actually do anything about it—and that is simply unacceptable in my book.
We can wait no longer to take steps to improve the health of our firefighters. Carcinogen exposure, mental health, physical fitness, nutrition, sleep deprivation--all of these factors have a direct impact on not only performance, but also many of the other issues that fire departments, both career and volunteer, face on a daily basis. We can have the best equipment...the most technologically advanced assets to bring to the battle…but it’s our people that make it all work, and we must do more to address the issue if we are to truly reduce the number of preventable line of duty deaths and injuries we suffer on an annual basis.
Illustration courtesy of Dr. Denise Smith
I implore you…regardless of your rank and tenure, take steps today to improve your personal health and the health of your crew.
1. Instructors must be prepared to educate all firefighters about the brutal effects that strenuous firefighting has on all body systems.
2. Firefighters must accept the personal responsibility to be fit for duty that comes with the oath we swore.
3. Line officers must consider every shift: “What can I do to improve the health and fitness of my crew?
4. Fire Chiefs must lead by example by placing a higher priority on health, fitness, and wellness and insisting on access to the resources to make it happen.
It’s time to re-evaluate from a personal and organizational standpoint. It’s time to educate our firefighters on the importance of personal health. It's time to start requiring NFPA-compliant medical evaluations for our personnel, to establish and maintain fitness standards so that our personnel are better prepared to withstand the rigors of firefighting, and to provide access to mental and behavioral health resources for our personnel.
We can no longer afford to question the cost of establishing health and wellness programs for our personnel. We must question the cost and human impact of a failure to do so.
Dan Kerrigan, EFO, CFO is a 31 year veteran of the fire service, serving in positions from Firefighter through Deputy Fire Chief. He is Chief Fire Marshal and department fitness coordinator for the East Whiteland Township Fire Department and co-author of the best-selling book Firefighter Functional Fitness.
Dan is a certified peer fitness trainer, and he serves as an at-large director on the IAFC-SHS section board of directors. He is a staunch firefighter health and wellness advocate, frequently presenting locally, regionally, and nationally on the topic. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dankerrigan911 & @firefighterFFit