Having worked with literally thousands of firefighters over my 20-year career with the FDNY, I was often met with a blind indifference when trying to get some of the senior firefighters to adapt a healthier lifestyle that included a sensible diet and exercise program. Years ago many firefighters identified working out with a level narcissism only associated with self-absorbed bodybuilders.
Running or jogging was somewhat more accepted, but regular participation in any type of structured exercise program was still relatively low throughout the eighties and even into the early nineties. Unfortunately, a firefighter's strongest motivation often comes from the shock of losing a brother to a heart attack. This tragic event makes everybody realize just how human we are, and inspires people to take action.
I was preparing to put together a comprehensive, statistically oriented article on the importance of getting the fitness message out to the troops when I found out about the loss of Firefighter Jim O'Shea. Jim suffered a heart attack on September 27th, following operations at a house fire in Queens; just doing his job, what he was trained to do. This is a major loss for our department, and Jim, a seventeen-year veteran, will be sorely missed by his family, friends and fellow firefighters.
As an emergency worker, you need to realize that this can happen to anyone at anytime. Operating in a dangerous environment where split second decisions need to be made and severe stress, hazardous conditions, and overexertion are a way of life, can sometimes lead to disaster. But you can increase the odds in your favor, and avoid becoming a statistic. (See related article)
A ten year study conducted by the United States Fire Administration (USFA) from 1990 to 2000, determined that the leading cause of on-duty death for firefighters was by heart attack (44 percent), with death from trauma (including both internal and head injuries) as the second leading cause (27 percent), and asphyxia and burns accounting for 20 percent of all firefighter fatalities. Firefighters over age 40 accounted for 60 percent of firefighter deaths, while only representing 46 percent of the firefighter workforce nationwide.
You can't predict the future, and there are no guarantees, but you can prepare yourself to withstand extreme situations and reduce the negative impact on your body. The evidence for the benefits of staying in shape as a working firefighter far outweighs any preconceived notions, stereotypes or other reasons for not participating in some kind of exercise program. So why do we still resist?
Resistance comes from all sides. The firefighter himself; usually underpaid, needs to work a second job to make ends meet and time and energy are on short supply. He also doesn't want to be penalized for being out of shape, and risk losing his job.
The municipality is all about dollars and cents, and until it's literally shoved down their throats and proven to be cost effective, a structured, department-wide fitness program won't even get considered. Insurance issues often come up, and the budget somehow never stretches far enough to include exercise equipment or supervised programs.
Union officials looking to protect their membership, who may possibly be too unfit to perform their jog safely, don't want to force mandatory participation in a program that would also involve pre-testing and screening.
So nothing gets done. The situation becomes a quagmire where the loser is the firefighter who doesn't get access to the information and equipment he needs. Right now in the fire service there's much focus on training and preparedness. Federal grants are being issued to help finance these new programs. Let's extend that to your most important asset and sophisticated piece of equipment, your body. Care and maintenance isn't automatic. It requires a small investment of time and effort, but the pay off is huge. You get to go home.