It is no secret that firefighting is a very strenuous job. If is also no secret that many of the personnel currently volunteering or being paid to perform this job are in poor levels of fitness. While we have noted some improvement over the past decades for attention to health and safety, how much change have we noted? Why do we typically see personnel hire onto the fire department in shape and able to pass a physical capabilities test, but as soon as five years later, they are barely able to get out of the fire engine?
Recently, the NFPA released their annual firefighter death report, which showed only 67 line of duty deaths, keeping with a trend of under 70. This is great news, but once again, the highest percentage (40%) are from cardiac related events. This category again leads the number of deaths. We know that much work has been done to prevent this being the leader in firefighter deaths.
Standards, Initiatives, and Training Enhancements
We have developed safety standards, such as NFPA 1500. We have fitness standards, such as NFPA 1583, and a medical standard in NFPA 1582. We have also created joint labor and management initiatives in the IAFF/IAFC Wellness-Fitness Imitative. Many great leaders in the fire service at all ranks have agreed and developed these standards and initiatives. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has created Life Safety Initiatives that nearly every fire academy in the country has incorporated into their curriculum. Lastly, the National Fire Academy has overhauled nearly every course they offer to include a safety and wellness section. We could not be more inundated with wellness and safety in our educational journey.
Leadership is Walking the Walk
While it is great that we have incorporated these enhancements in our curriculums, we can look around the room while we sit in leadership classes and see many that do not portray fitness or safety. While there are many reasons that often exist at the executive level for lack of fitness, they all boil down to a lack of priority for fitness. I have a friend that is in a wheelchair due to an accident and he maintains a fitness level so that he may have adventures with his son. He prioritizes his family and does what it takes. We have heard some executives state that they are no longer on the line and thus do not need the same level of fitness. While, I would agree that stretching the mouse across a desk rather than stretching hose takes two different fitness levels, people look to those who push initiatives to see if they are biting in. Would you use a financial advisor that does not invest in what they suggest for you? Would you buy a Chevy from a person that drives a Ford? Likely not. Never ask others to do what you cannot.
Life Gets in the Way
Once of the issues with fitness in the fire service is that it is not every third day initiative that you can only utilize while at work. It is a lifestyle. Many of us start out in the profession in our early 20’s when we are single with no kids and few responsibilities other than showing up to work every third day. We have all the time in the day to workout. We have not developed poor eating habits and if we have, our metabolism compensates. Fast forward 5-10 years and often have a spouse and children. We have often taken on part-time work to compensate for all of the added expenses that come with the spouse and children. Next thing we know, we have gained 20 pounds and only pay for a gym membership, not actually use the membership. By this point out metabolism is not helping us and doing the job of firefighting has become markedly harder to recover from. We need a day or 2 to recover from a fire.
Is the Culture Helping
Each fire department has a culture of norms in which the members must abide. This is created through policies and accepted values of the majority of the members. Some cultures are fire centric. Some value EMS, and a few value fitness. The organizations that value fitness are often in areas that the overall culture values fitness. The culture will be driven by expectations. As a department’s members age, for the reasons listed prior, the culture will likely reduce the commitment to fitness. This is where the leadership must walk the walk and lead the organization to maintain or increase the commitment to fitness. This is a delicate balance, as there are many methods to become fit. Some may prefer triathlons and others may prefer powerlifting. The fire service will need a balance of these two extremes. A power lifter can likely pick up the mayday firefighter by the air pack, tuck him under his arm, and carry him out, but will be out of air in his or her air tank within minutes. The triathlete will have much longer to utilize the limited amount of air in the SCBA but will lack the strength to drag a person who may be just above ideal weight. As we can note, neither of these scenarios are ideal. We must focus on functional fitness.
The bottom line is what the organization and its members tolerate will become the norm. What the leadership of the organization is not willing to do will not occur from the rank and file. We are in control of the fitness level of our organization. Get out and be sure that you are a model of what you want for the organization and then hold others accountable.