Fire-Rescue Service Roundtable: Fire Department Health & Wellness Initiatives

Firehouse Magazine asks fire service leaders to discuss ways to keep firefighters fit and healthy, on and off duty, with the goal of reducing health related fatalities and injuries.


DAVID DANIELS MHRM, MIFireE, CFO, is fire chief/emergency services administrator for the City of Renton, WA. He is international director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Safety, Health & Survival Section and a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA...


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DANIELS: Studies suggest that a significant percentage of those who experience duty-related heart problems have pre-existing cardiovascular disease. Paying attention to firefighters' heart health on a daily basis is one way to ensure that underlying issues don't become bigger ones. Daily, firefighters check the fluids and tire pressure on vehicles, but rarely check their blood pressure or heart rates or those of the people they will be working with during the shift.

Firefighters could also take seriously the opportunities provided by their organizations to participate in heart-healthy activities and take every possible opportunity to work "smarter" rather than work "harder." When faced with the option of doing work alone or in teams, choose the team. If there is a viable mechanical option available, take it. If you're going to have to overexert yourself to do the work, get help or perhaps don't do it unless your life depends on it.

GOLDFEDER: One of the easiest and simple things we can do is to make sure all firefighters wash themselves to get rid of the soot and other related residues from fires so we can avoid skin exposure. For years, we would walk around with that stuff all over us, almost enjoying it and feeling good about it. Then we end up finding out that the stuff is being sucked into our bodies by our skin and is a "freeway" for cancer-causing stuff to directly enter our systems. Nearly everything we deal with today is man made and can off-gas cyanide poison - pretty nasty stuff. We should be cleaning ourselves as quickly as possible after a fire and cleaning our gear after every working fire, including hoods. A soot-filled hood spends a lot of its time on our necks, our necks sweat, the pores open and the body can soak up the bad stuff. We do not want the body to soak up the bad stuff. We want the gear washers to soak up the bad stuff, not us.

Additionally, we need to look hard at what is being made for us that can help better minimize the bad stuff from getting in or on us, such as the IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) Project Heroes PPE System that actually will provide a positive-pressure system, making it harder for the bad stuff to get in or on us. While today's PPE is good, the near future of PPE will be better as manufacturers continue to understand exactly what we must be protected from. For more information related to firefighting and cancer, go to the website www.FireFighterCancerSupport.org.

MORRIS: The fire service is a labor-intensive workplace. Its demand on the human body is similar to a competitive athlete. If we can't maintain proper health and fitness, we can't deliver an acceptable level of performance. We further expose our body to great risk of a heart attack or stroke. The public we serve recognizes we are not super-human, but they do expect us to perform effectively for a reasonable period of time. Collapsing in exhaustion 15 minutes into a fire is putting the firefighter and the public at risk.

Proper diet certainly reduces cardiac risk. A good diet also allows the body to perform better at emergencies. A regular program of combined strength training and aerobic exercise prepares us to do our jobs better. Ultimately, it also allows us to live well into our retirement years.

Good health and fitness is a personnel commitment. But management also has a responsibility. They too must "walk the talk" and maintain a healthy lifestyle and fitness level. We shouldn't be selecting firefighters that have not demonstrated a commitment to health and fitness. Additionally, fire department leaders must do all they can to implement a wellness program that can detect evolving medical issues early. Early detection leads to survivability. If a high school can mandate that a student must get a basic medical exam before being allowed to play football, surely we can require such an exam for new candidates and incumbent members - both career and volunteer. As noted in the NFPA study, 75% of the heart conditions could have been detected by simple medical exams.

And finally, firefighters need to know when to leave the fire service and do so before the job kills them. Age puts all of us at risk. The risk of a fatal medical event starts rising dramatically after 50 years of age. Medical conditions begin to appear (NFPA study above) telling us we're at risk and it's time to leave. Every one of our firefighters should go home from the run and everyone should enjoy retirement.