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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 Tim Benner on May 8, 2012 at 2:03pm

I also have tried to have this conversation and have been told that its none of my business. Which is of course wrong as any member that can't pull his own weight (no pun intended) on the fireground puts their problem on the other members. Your correct in your observation that these guys can't be frontline or interior firefighters. One guy even told me that he "only" drives and pumps so its not that important to be in shape. Number one, they only have minimal aerobic capacity and number two, modern scba does not have straps that are long enough that would fit some of these guys.  

Comment by Carol Wilder-Goodwin on May 8, 2012 at 1:57pm

We received a grant for new turnout gear my second year on the department.  When we were measured for sizing I found out I was under-tall for my width.  (I'm 5'2" with my fire boots on.) 

Ordering a standard size would mean I'd have my gear in the first shipment.  Alterations meant I might have to wait an additional 6-8 weeks to get my gear.

I used this as my excuse to finally buckle down and lose weight.  By the time the grant was approved and we could actually order our gear I'd lost over 40 lbs, was eating better, and exercised almost every day. 

I didn't realize how much of a difference the weight made until the first time I had to pack up and go in. 

I'm just glad it was a shiny new set of turnouts that motivated me to do something and not keeling over in a house fire.

Maybe that guy just doesn't have a mirror wide enough to be able to see the whole picture?  The truth hurts.

Comment by Paul Muth on May 8, 2012 at 1:03pm

Sir I have purchased your book, prints and posted them at my station and in my home. This one is very poignant! Keep em coming!

Comment by Christopher Huston on May 8, 2012 at 5:49am
Thanks for the great visual aid for those of us on this "war path." Have we been too soft or trying to do it in a nice political way? What else can we do? A few classes I have taught, I asked family to attend. I hoped that by touching the family with LODD/Health/Fitness stats and info, maybe the family could influence them. The very small number of spouses that have attended are astounded by how many LODD's we have.

It is time to hit them where it hurts...reach out to their families.
Comment by John Carder on May 7, 2012 at 10:53pm

The first BOD meeting I ever went to (about seven years ago) was prompted by an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine that urged fire departments to have fitness programs. I was just trying to get us access to a gym.

The NEJM is still writing about the problem:
"Heart disease causes 45% of the deaths that occur among U.S. firefighters while they are on duty. "

Comment by David "Dewey" Atkocaitis on May 7, 2012 at 10:26pm

Thank you Paul, Im glad you have brought the problem to light, I was one of those guys and it took a lot to finally make a choice to change that, and Im so glad I did, I want other guys to know its a difficult position to be in and a very hard decision to have WLS, but its one Ive been blessed with, Its still a daily struggle, and I battle everyday but I have kept my weight down, Im still a bigger guy and I will always be but I'm much healthier and much more active, Im proud that Ive been able to use my experience with WLS to share with other brothers and sisters that there are other options once you've lost control and need that tool in the tool box, but its not an end all cure all its a tool just like a set of irons...I also agree that the industry sets standards for health and safety yet our manufacturers will make the larger and larger turn out gear...I'm not saying WLS is for everyone, and its about being healthy and taking control for ones health and wellness...I still struggle and after reading today reached out to guys in my house that are good with fitness and nutrition to help me, to get back into a better way of life to be even healthier to hopefully loose the last 50 I've got to loose, and they gladly said yes, well do it together....please from one of those former guys to my bigger brothers....please take a serious look and reach out, get healthy life is so much better, I look at my 3 kids and my wife and thank the lord for that second chance make today the day you choose....

Comment by P.J. Norwood on May 7, 2012 at 10:21pm
Paul, I personally want to also thank you for sharing this story. As we discussed at FDIC some just don't understand! It's very easy for all of us to look outward but it always hard to look at our selves. However with so many of us beating the same drum we can only hope those that need to make changes will. As always you do such a great job at identifying and broadcasting issues that effect the fire service in a way that no one else can. We all appreciate your efforts!
Comment by Bobby Halton on May 7, 2012 at 6:28pm

Hey as someone on the otherside of this issue, too thin, Pauls editorial is about overall health, too heavy too light doesn't matter we should all be trying to get as fit as we can, to be as effective as we can when we are needed. I know this editorial is not intended to be mean or disrespectful to anyone out there who is struggling with weight issues. It is a call to those who choose not to fight at all!


Comment by Paul Combs on May 7, 2012 at 5:47pm

Frank, I think most of us have struggled with weight at some point - it's just too easy go off course with the abundance of fat and sugar rich food options. The difference is we do something about it to improve our condition and health.

Comment by Frank Ricci on May 7, 2012 at 5:04pm


Keep up the great work. As someone who struggles with my weight I can clearly say you are right! 

Stroke, heart attack and company safety and I thought I started running again so I could drink more.

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