There’s an old saying: You eat an elephant one bite at a time. The same logic applies to wooly mammoths, because that best describes the subject of physical fitness within the fire service. It should be a simple marriage, really. Yet, we’ve adopted a mentality that “anybody can do our job” and thus have poisoned the well.
Let’s go back a few years. You’re put through the requisite battery of physical testing to get hired, presumably as if that’s the only time in your career that you’ll have to wear all that stuff and do all those things with any shred of efficiency. After you’re sworn in, it’s kick back and coast-only 24 years and 364 days until retirement. “Somebody pinch me,” you say to yourself, “I must be dreaming.”
Actually, it’s a nightmare, considering that half of the annual firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) and the vast majority of line- of-duty injuries are directly attributed to being out of shape. Every year, the fire service guarantees us two things: More than a hundred of us are going to die in the line of duty; and the cause in half of those deaths will be predictable and preventable. That’s a huge statement. Would this situation be acceptable in any other industry, especially in the private sector? The answer is most emphatically no!
I like to tell the story of our ol’ pal Anybody. Although we recruit from the general population, we expect candidate Somebody to have certain attributes, training, qualities and motivations. So begins the process: We pool and test Everybody, weed out Anybody, leaving us with Somebody. We’re looking for the best and generally find them. It’s what happens from that point on that should concern us. Somewhere between hire and retire something goes wrong with Somebody and before we know it, we have Anybody working for us-and Anybody gets us into lots of trouble on (and off) the fireground.
So what sense did the entire hiring process make if we weren’t going to prevent Somebody from turning into Anybody? The fact is that Anybody cannot do our job, and we need to stop pretending that they can.
This isn’t an indictment of the entire fire service. Predominantly, we are a dedicated professional organization, and the majority of our brothers and sisters serve their communities well. They take care of themselves, their families, and earn the respect and admiration of co-workers for their dedication to their work. In other words, they’ve earned their bones.
But as a community, we have room for improvement. Your department is probably a lot like mine; fire incidents are down, but run numbers are still on the rise. So it’s safe to say that fire prevention programs are working (which is good), but our customers are demanding more of us in other areas, such as fire-based EMS, technical rescue, USAR, haz mat, WMD, bioterror, and so forth. When we get bogged down with all the other things we have on our plate, which all require a degree of physical preparedness, it’s often difficult to remember the task that gets us into the most trouble, the one thing we do less of every year, the one thing responsible for the vast majority of LODDs: firefighting.
But until they take fires off the menu, we are going to have to prepare a place for them in our kitchen. Where we’ve made tremendous strides and significant investments in apparatus, PPE, training, tools, and equipment, we’ve ignored much of the human factor. And despite technology and innovations, all of the stuff we use every day has a limited shelf life. The only thing we expect to last a career is our people. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we commit the same time and energy to our people as we put into our stuff.
We are occupational athletes and, unlike professional athletes, we don’t always have a choice in which game we play or the arena in which we perform. Everybody else decides that for us. There’s no such thing as a rain delay, and we never cancel an event because of inclement weather. The only thing for certain is that we have to be ready-wherever, whenever, and whatever the venue. Two hundred and eighty million people are counting on us.
Where we go from here is going to be a tough journey, but it isn’t impossible. We’ve got more on our side than we think. It’s time to concentrate our efforts on and develop the tools necessary to help people. Our stuff can wait.
The best way to begin the problem solving process is through introspection-looking no farther than to ourselves for a solution. We’ll use a couple of undeniable truths to build the foundation for change.
1. The Lesson of History: You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. There are 1.13 million firefighters in the United States. On average, we injure (physically and physiologically) 80,000 firefighters each year; half of all injuries are recorded as strains and sprains. Heart attacks, strokes, respiratory distress, and thermal stress account for more than 5,600. Of the total injuries, more than 1,600 are categorized as severe or life-threatening. Although firefighters (as a profession) are considered a special population, as individuals we are a sample of normal society. Yet, we are at risk for a higher incidence of cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, pulmonary, renal, and hepatic disease than the average American. We are four times more likely to suffer an occupational death and three times more likely to suffer an occupational injury or illness than workers in the private sector. Although the incidence of fire in the United States is down 40 percent since 1988, injuries and LODDs related to fireground operations remain steady (down only 12 percent). Injuries attributed to nonfire emergencies (e.g., EMS, haz mat, technical rescue) are on a sharp rise-now accounting for 20 percent of the total.
Seven percent of what we do (fight fires) is responsible for 55 percent of our injuries. Yikes!
The problem is, not only is this where we’ve been, this is where we are now, which brings us to ....
2. The Lesson of the Present: Failure to acknowledge the mistakes of the past condemns you to repeat them. Every year the statistics tell us the truth, that half of our injuries and deaths could have been prevented, and every year the mainstream fire service culture stands in stalwart denial. It’s hard to argue with facts, yet we do anyway, especially because the real fix involves a wholesale change-true change that must cross into our comfort zones, personal (lifestyle) and professional (cultural) lives-to work. Eighty thousand injuries and 103 deaths annually signal a disease; knowing that half were preventable and doing almost nothing about it is unacceptable.
The original sin of the fire service is that we’ve been allowed to take ourselves for granted. Until recently, we haven’t educated, encouraged, and mentored our brothers and sisters to think more of themselves while holding them to a higher health and wellness standard. The overall fitness of today’s firefighter is marginally better than it was 20 years ago, but our disease continues to metastasize from benign to malignant. We’re treating cancer as we would a headache. This is not a “take two aspirins and call me in the morning” problem.
3. The Lesson of the Future: As you sow, so shall you reap. Since we cannot make a new start, we must plant our flag in the middle and make a difference from here on out. Or, to use an old poker analogy: “It’s not whether you’re dealt a good hand, it’s how well you play the cards you’re dealt.” Right now, you can create an environment that focuses on the wellness and longevity of human beings. It will not only be welcomed, it will be contagious. The specifics of a health and fitness program are too lengthy to do them any justice in the space allowed here. However, at the 2006 Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis, Indiana, I will deliver an interactive presentation “Planning, Justifying, and Developing a Firefighter Preventative Maintenance Program.” We’ll explore each of the components for introducing a successful health and fitness program in your department.
Since the only bad time to start a health and fitness program in your department is “never,” take some time and make a plan specific to your department. It may take a generation, but we can eventually create a new culture where fitness and health are the rule rather than the exception. In the meantime, you’ll help others help themselves to enjoy their careers as well as a healthy retirement. Do this, and it will be the greatest contribution you will ever make. No one will forget it. ?
Don Herbert is the founder of Occupational Athletes, a consulting group specializing in developing and implementing health and fitness programs for firefighters. He is a paramedic/firefighter with the Independence (MI) Fire Department, where he serves as the health and fitness coordinator. He is certified as an IAFF/IAFC/ACE peer fitness trainer and as a health/fitness instructor with the American College of Sports Medicine.