Start a fire science degree at American Military University.
By Merritt Kearns, faculty member, Emergency Management and Fire Science Management, American Military University and
Emily Langford, contributor, In Public Safety
Firefighting is a physically demanding, dangerous, and stressful profession. In recent years, the U.S. fire service has increased its emphasis on firefighter health and safety efforts. Firefighter health and safety is the umbrella term for a number of more specific areas including fireground safety, behavioral health, annual medical and physical assessments, occupational cancer prevention and detection, physical fitness, peer support, stress management, and more.
In an occupation that takes a significant toll on the physical and mental health of its members, research shows that fire departments are not doing enough to support the physical and mental health of their firefighters. The latest NFPA United States Fire Service Needs Assessment found the following:
- only 27% of U.S. fire departments report having a health and fitness program
- only 20% of U. S. fire departments report having a behavioral health program
While many larger fire departments have health and safety programs that have been in existence for years, many smaller to mid-size career fire departments and volunteer fire departments might be looking for help with getting started on the road to increased firefighter health and safety.
As a firefighter who was appointed as the health & safety officer at Statesboro (GA) Fire Department several years ago, I decided to write this article to illustrate the scope of the issue and introduce resources that will help departments create or improve their health and safety programs.
The Case for Firefighter Fitness
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) has tracked firefighter fatalities for the past 43 years with a goal of reducing line-of-duty deaths (LODD). The latest annual report from the USFA details the results from 2017, when there were 87 LODDs. 60 percent of these deaths were from “stress or overexertion,” which includes heart attacks and strokes. 50 firefighter LODDs were due to heart attacks and two are attributed to strokes.
As the USFA points out, an LODD due to heart attack or stroke “does not necessarily indicate a firefighter was in poor physical condition.” However, the high percentage of cardiac-related deaths underscores the need for increased firefighter fitness and stress management training.
The Need for Firefighter Behavioral Health
While the USFA has been tracking LODDs for decades, the toll of job-related stress on firefighters’ mental health has only recently come to the forefront. Statistics show that public safety personnel are six to 10 times more likely than the general population to consider and attempt suicide. The job-related stress experienced by firefighters can result in unhealthy behaviors and coping mechanisms such as substance abuse. These, in turn, can damage personal relationships at home. With long shifts and inherent sleep disturbances in the mix, firefighters are often in need of mental and emotional support.
The Good News!
The good news is that fire department wellness programs are effective at reducing firefighters’ physical and mental stress. Research from the International Association of Firefighters Wellness Fitness Initiative shows that wellness programs result in:
- decreased obesity
- increased physical fitness and mental health
- reduction in smoking
- reduction in substance use to cope with stress
- better job performance
- increased levels of peer-support
- less leave time to deal with personal and work-related problems
Useful Health and Safety Resources
If your fire department is looking to get started with or expand upon current health and safety efforts, here are some resources that will help. This is not an exhaustive list as there are many terrific resources out there, but it should give you a foundation to get started:
NFPA 1582 Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments is free to access and provides guidelines for annual medical and fitness evaluations.
NFPA 1583 Standard on Health-Related Fitness Programs for Fire Department Members is the basis for building a complete health and fitness program to enhance performance of members and reduce the risk of injury and disease.
International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) – Safety, Health and Survival Section has numerous resources available including:
- Healthcare Provider’s Guide to Firefighter Physicals
- Lavender Ribbon Report: Best Practices for Preventing Firefighter Cancer
- Safety Stand Down 2019: Occupational Cancer Prevention
- Emergency Services Road Map to Health & Wellness: Fire Department Guide to NFPA 1582
International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) – Fit to Survive provides information and examples regarding meal planning and general nutrition tips.
IAFF/IAFC and American Council on Exercise have collaborated to create a Peer Fitness Trainer certification. This credential qualifies individual firefighters to lead departmental exercise sessions, as well as lead recruits in physical fitness sessions.
National Volunteer Fire Council offers a list of resources to help your department when starting a health and wellness program.
The Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) provides numerous resources including:
- The FDSOA Annual Health and Safety Forum
- Training that leads to the following Pro Board Certifications:
Drexel University Center for Firefighter Injury Research & Safety Trends (FIRST) supports the fire service through data collection and analysis. They offer the Fire Service Organizational Culture of Safety (FOCUS) tool, which allows fire departments to participate in surveys at no cost that measure their safety culture and determine line firefighters’ perception of their department’s commitment to safety.
Firefighter Cancer Support Network provides a wealth of information on reducing occupational cancer in the U.S. fire service.
Under Armour’s myfitnesspal is a free mobile app to track and analyze food intake and exercise. Additionally, users can set and monitor their progress towards daily and long-term fitness goals.
Harvard School of Public Health provides firefighters with nutrition resources including recipes and sample grocery lists that focus on the Mediterranean diet. This diet emphasizes the use of olive oil, herbs, and lean proteins to improve cardiovascular health and reduce some cancer risks.
TSAC Report – The National Strength and Conditioning Association publishes a quarterly journal with research relevant to tactical athletes (i.e., fire, police, military), generally pertaining to training, injury, and recovery.
Social Media – Here are some terrific accounts to follow on Twitter that will keep you up to date with the latest tips and information on firefighter wellness:
All fire departments have a responsibility to support their firefighters’ mental, emotional, and physical health. While many departments struggle with the budgetary resources to implement a health and safety program, these resources can help you get moving in the right direction to increase fireground performance, reduce injuries, and improve the long-term health of your personnel.
About the Authors:
Merritt Kearns, M.Ed. is an American Military University faculty member teaching Emergency Management and Fire Science Management. He is also a Battalion Chief with the Statesboro (GA) Fire Department where he serves as the department’s Health & Safety Officer. To contact him, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.
Emily Langford, M.S., is a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky majoring in Exercise Physiology. Her research interests focus on the cardiovascular health and functional fitness of firefighters. To contact her, email IPSauthor@apus.edu.