Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival: Leading by Example Is Essential in Wellness/Fitness Matters

At one time or another, we've all been through the rigorous and stressful promotional interview/oral board scenario, where we're asked to describe an effective leader's most important characteristics. My bet is you've all used the phrase and expressed the importance of "leadership by example," when describing the key traits for the position you were interviewing for, whether it was for captain or battalion, division, assistant or fire chief.

Over the past 10 years, the U.S. fire service has averaged 91 line-of-duty deaths per year. It could easily be argued that more than half of these tragic deaths are wellness-related (or lack of wellness) and in many cases preventable.

As chief officers, we know how stressful the fire service can be. We also know that exercise is a key component of stress management. Yet, how many of us actually take part in the fitness/wellness programs we've fought so hard to implement for our departments and personnel?

Chief Shobert and Engineer Andy Schmader high-five during the final leg of the 13.1 mile run of the 2012 California Ironman 70.3, where 12 of 49 operational personnel from MFD competed.Time spent in the firehouse gym with your firefighters can help build respect and trust between you and your crews. Many chief officers are older than most line-suppression personnel are; because of this, we can't lift as much weight or run quite as fast as our firefighting crews can. This may create a sense of not wanting to show our weaknesses.

However, I would argue that it would help build labor-management trust and respect by showing a level of vulnerability in asking for some physical-training assistance and advice from your subordinate personnel. And it may just save or extend your life! At a minimum, it will improve your quality of life as you continue to age.

As I was growing up, my father would mentor me with a common retort: "Do as I say, not as I do!" He was a three-pack-a-day smoker trying to convince me not to become a smoker. I never did, and he unfortunately died of lung cancer four months before I was promoted to fire chief.

Of course, this leadership style didn't work well then and it doesn't work in today's fire service. This same dichotomy is occurring when we continue to preach about firefighter health, safety and welfare, yet we, the fire service leadership, don't do anything about our own long-term health issues.

Does your department have an active wellness program that includes medical screening, physical training, nutritional counseling and emotional support? Do you as a chief officer actively participate in the program through leadership by example?

Or, do you use the old "Do as I say, not as I do" management style that doesn't work well and sends the wrong message?

As fire service leaders, we need to take responsibility for our thoughts, actions, work habits and lifestyle goals. We need to communicate the right message, be willing to change the course and lead by example.

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