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While signing books on Monday during FDIC, a large (pushing 375 lbs) firefighter approached me with his slightly slimmer, but still girthy entourage of three. I extend my hand in greeting, which was met with a chest puffing and the comment "I don't like the way you make fun of big people!" Being taken off my guard by his comment, I respectfully asked if he is a front line firefighter. He answered with a snarky "I'm a kick-a** go-gitter!" I then asked how long he could last on one 30 min SCBA bottle - he responds "30 minutes!" Annoyed by his demeanor and eager for a spirited fight, I tell him that he's lying to me. I continue that he is not only a risk for heart attack or stroke, but that he is putting his entire crew at risk because they may be called to rescue him from a hostile environment. He flips me a ‘fan gesture’ and says he knew I'd be a "d***". Ah, my fans!

I'm telling you this story because it opened my eyes to a problem that we don't hear much about in the fire service – obesity as an epidemic. I spent the remainder of my week at FDIC watching people and taking mental notes of how many ‘front-line’ firefighters would be considered obese - and the percentage was alarming (pushing 40%). What’s more, that percentage became higher as the week progressed. Many variables play into this, of course, and Lord knows most of us have pounds that we could shed, but this is a topic that needs to be discussed.

Heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, certain types of cancer, arthritis, sleep apnea, stress, lack of agility, back injuries… the list of injury and devastating health problems due to obesity is long! Isn’t this job hazardous enough without us adding to the problem with actions we can change? If you fall into this category, get up, get out, and start getting in shape! Begin a fitness and nutrition program, and stick with it – your body, mind, and soul will thank you!


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Comment by Mary Ann Hooton on May 9, 2012 at 6:22pm

Nutrition and fitness are should be a mandatory part of a Firefighter training and lifestyle......Unfortunately process foods and fast food chains have taken over and lured many from the simple art of proper dieting. I would be curious to see a firefighter study on how many actually know simple anatomy, the systems and the body, and even the basics on how the body works in relation to nutrition and exercise.

Comment by Paul Combs on May 9, 2012 at 12:23pm


Comment by John Carder on May 9, 2012 at 12:03pm

The wildland fire world has this figured out. If you want your red card, you have to pass the annual, arduous pack test. That means walking three miles with 45 pounds on your back in 45 minutes. That's a fast pace to maintain. The NFPA should recommend a simple, annual performance test like that. Size alone is not the issue. Some big people are in shape. Some small people are not strong. The point is whether or not you can do the job. If you need a waist extender for your SCBA rig, you probably cannot do the job.

Comment by Paul Combs on May 9, 2012 at 10:26am

Thanks for sharing, Chief - it's sincerely inspiring!! Hopefully folks will listen and learn from your experience.

As for hate mail... well, it comes with the territory:) And I honestly do not mind.

Comment by David "Dewey" Atkocaitis on May 9, 2012 at 10:16am


I’m sorry your receiving hate mail over the topic, you see an alarming issue and bring it to light, just like you have done with your art, you broach the shhh topics, don’t talk about it, it may offend…ie Suicide, safety, seatbelts, fitness….I’m  speaking from the heart when I say it took a lot for me to make a change, I had thought about  it, and thought about it, and thought about it….I got bigger, tried every diet known to man, had some success, and then put it back on, it took my ah ha moments of I was at 558lbs, a Part time Deputy Chief and active fireground officer…or so I kept convincing myself…1. I went to climb a ladder at a working fire in a bungalow, hit the 5th or 6th rung and though my knees and shins were going to literally explode, I had ordered new gear yet again at a size 74 yup they made it no questions asked and the salesman even got them to wave the upcharge using do you make the small gear cheaper argument…I wanted a FDNY Gemtor harness, Id called Gemtor, inquired about having one made, and the rep not knowing it was for me, laughed and said..”are You Kidding me?” No way in hell …. And then a friend said some real hurtful things when we were in NY after 9-11 working… Those were my breaking points…Its not easy to admit people have problems, or to ask for help…..But I was lucky enough to have a few guys I was lucky to have met that gave me such encouragement and an positive outlook it helped make the change…I met Denis Leary and the Cast of Rescue Me after 9-11, and when Rescue Me was a concept. Denis, Adam Ferrara, Lenny Clarke, Diane Farr…and the Hockey greats that Support the Leary Firefighter Foundation…..they were so encouraging and were so positive about it and I had huge support here and made the decision to go the Weight Loss Surgery route….It’s been an amazing journey, with high points and low points, high points, Completing my first outdoor triathlon and numerous indoor ones as well, landing a career position with a local fire department, meeting my wife and having 3 amazing children, My lowest was my body not cooperating with the hardcore fitness for the Chicago Fire EMS Academy my dream job, It wasn’t that I wasn’t fit my body couldn’t keep up and I ended up in near kidney  failure, I suffer from Kidney stones as a rare side effect from the type of WLS but I’ll live with that and if knowing that would happen would choose to do it again…Like I said its easy to harp and b**** about the fat guys, and until they have their ah ha moment they won’t buy in to change, some guys it takes a life changing event…some guys never have that ah ha moment….but our own culture doesn’t help…we spend 24 hrs together and have some amazing cooks and chefs in the firehouse, I love to cook,…it’s a family environment and we eat….it still in this day and age that you have the departments that are either end of the spectrum with fitness they go balls to the wall and embrace it, or are so afraid of liability they won’t allow it….I’m asking the guys that are big, stop really take a look and ask yourself do I like living like this, am I truly happy, once you empower yourself to make that change…its exhilarating one of my friends on the Job, hit his highest and lost a 100+ lbs after he hit his heaviest at the 350 range and as a reminder had 358 tattooed on his wrist a s a reminder that when he went to do something like eat a donut he saw that weight on his wrist and said nope….Your so right we work an extremely dangerous job, and adding the additional stress of being unhealthy shouldn’t be one….were losing guys younger and younger with MI’s, and strokes….Please I beg you guys stop make today you choose, make the decision to be health empower yourself to take control back…..If you love the job now,
you’ll love it a 1000X’s more while healthy…trust me I’m living proof…..

Comment by Paul Combs on May 9, 2012 at 8:12am

FYI: This is a one-two punch commentary! My June Fire Engineering magazine commentary tackles obesity in fire service, too. This will give some of you the satisfaction of sending your 'hate' emails all over again:)

Comment by Gillian Hurlburt Cox on May 8, 2012 at 4:56pm

Paul, I have taught nutrition education for 3 years. The simplest advice I can give for men is take (weight in lbs) X 10 = total calories required to maintain weight. (some people with better "metabolism" number is higher, others lower. Women multiply by 8) AND if you eat 500 less calories than  this every day you will lose weight. the only way i have seen success is to spend 5 min after every meal and record what you ate, like a check book, if you over spend you calories one day try and do better the next to make up for it. over the course of a week a 3500 calorie deficit should equal 1 pound of weight loss a week. as you make slow changes to food with more protein (Grilled chicken, yogurt, cottage cheese, egg whites, tuna, all fish) and less fats (fried foods, oils and alcohol) you will feel better, it will be easier to make better food decisions and the healthier lifestyle will be natural! I have done this it is possible. I still enjoy my favorites too, like frappe, little icecream or chocolate. Just in moderation! Take small steps every day, and the journey will be over before you realize how far you have gone! 

Comment by Gillian Hurlburt Cox on May 8, 2012 at 4:39pm

I am 5'5" 135# female in an all volunteer department. I couldn't rescue any of my dozen officers (including my dear husband) as they are all morbidly obese. You know what p***** me off the most. That we have to allot additional funding to pay for their PPE and Duty shirts because they wear 3XL, 4XL and 5XL. That is just plain BS! And that is the example we set for our firefighters. Hell the "health and safety" officer is over 400#'s and constantly struggling with complications from diabetes! Everyone is too concerned when the Chinese Buffet closes to take care of department business. When I bring up any health, wellness, dietary education I get told that I am not an RN at the FD, I am just another FF. Depressing, but I continue to try and set a good example and enact positive change. Thanks for the great depiction of the TRUTH.

Comment by Paul Combs on May 8, 2012 at 3:27pm

Thanks to all who have shared their thoughts. Please, let's remember to keep a positive and constructive outlook here. Tangible solutions need to be offered, so if anyone has fitness and nutrition websites they'd like to share, this would be a great time.

Comment by Rob Pickett on May 8, 2012 at 3:03pm

Why don't we encourage the turnout manufacturers to have a maximum size turnout they will make instead of providing whatever size is requested of them?

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