We all know “Everyone Goes Home”; that’s what it says on the black rubber bracelet I’m wearing. I think of it like a “WWJD” bracelet—a simple reminder for us to do all we can to ensure that it happens.
We all know as well that about half of our on-duty firefighter deaths are caused by heart disease and has been at about 50% for a very long time. In fact, cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death among firefighters aged 40 to 50.
Are we putting enough effort into the factors that represent such a large portion of our deaths?
We have outstanding personal protective equipment, safety policies and practices, and the finest fleet of apparatus and tools to enable that lofty goal. Good thing, because we are charged with protecting a whole lot of people.
However, many of the factors that increase our risk of dying from cardiac arrest, such as poor fitness habits, bad nutrition habits, preexisting heart disease and the stress of the job, are not addressed by gear, equipment and paperwork. We take such good care of our residents, customers, etc. Why don’t we take better care of ourselves?
Physical fitness is certainly important for preventing heart disease and protecting firefighters from injury while on the job. Cardio training is the most effective way to combat it, because that’s how we work; there is no routine.
Seriously—our needs are different than the general population, including sport athletes. Complement this with some flexibility, plyometric and strength training and you’re becoming ready for the next shift. However, fitness alone is far less successful than when it is coupled with nutrition. In fact, nutrition will improve and ensure long-term benefits like a healthy career and health in retirement!
Nutrition is eating habits. Just say no to dieting! Permanent, consistent proper nutrition, including heart-healthy eating (at work and at home) and maintaining a healthy weight is equally if not more important. That’s because we’re exposed to extreme work conditions that require our hearts to work at near-maximum capacity for extended periods of time. Excess weight increases the heart’s workload and increases risk of injury. In fact, the two biggest keys to our health and success as firefighters are cardio training and nutrition.
In addition—and this is a big one—the physical and emotional stresses of this job are degrading our health. It substantially increases our risk for heart disease and cardiac arrest.
We need to go out of our way to ensure we’re doing all the prevention work we can. Eating habits that control weight, behaviors and activities that diffuse stress and fitness training that’s geared toward how we work is the key to staying healthy. Our personal goal must be focused on being mission-ready, 24/7. Doing so makes us better firefighters, better spouses, better moms and dads, and much more likely to remain in the “Everyone Goes Home” crowd, even into retirement.
is fire chief of the Hartland Deerfield (Mich.) Fire Authority. He's a member of the IAFC’s Communications Committee and has been a member of the IAFC since 2003.