There is no argument against the impact of strenuous firefighting and occupational exposures on firefighters. Firefighting is a dangerous profession that presents many risks that cannot be completely controlled.
However, firefighter health is not one of them.
Research has repeatedly shown the detrimental effects firefighting has on the human body, and the combination of heat stress and dehydration exacerbates this punishing impact on all of our body systems. Exposure to carcinogens remains a serious concern, and we cannot ignore the mental health and wellbeing of our personnel.
With all that we are up against, the research also clearly demonstrates the positive impact of annual medical evaluations, exercise, sensible nutrition, hydration, and rest and recovery. This is fact, not conjecture.
According to the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) most recent needs-assessment survey, only an embarrassingly low 27% of fire departments have even a basic health-and-wellness program in place. Often, the financial impact of health-and-wellness program implementation is cited as a barrier to improvement. Yet many studies have shown a positive return on investment (ROI) on these programs – many times in the first year of implementation.
Grant programs have consistently given priority to health-and-wellness initiatives, and there are more resources available than ever before – research-backed resources (many of them free) to help fire service organizations implement wellness programs.
There will always be obstacles to overcome, and they will vary from department to department. But one thing cannot be denied: Excuses will never reduce health-related line-of-duty deaths.
Consider an Oregon study that compared dollars spent on firefighter health and dollars spent on apparatus repair. As reported in The Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative (PDF), a sample department allocated 70% to apparatus maintenance and 30% to repair versus 3% on firefighter health maintenance and 97% to repair. The average annual cost savings of $563,334 for departments that implemented WFI clearly suggests that health-and-wellness programs not only reduce the financial impact of injuries and illnesses, but also increase overall firefighter health, performance and longevity.
Many firefighter health-and-wellness advocates have turned their focus to individual firefighters to raise awareness and educate them on the need to get and stay fit for duty. While this approach is having a positive effect, the time is now for fire service leadership to prioritize firefighter health and wellness.
The research has been done. The data doesn’t lie. Regardless of the obstacles, barriers, challenges and, yes, excuses, tangible action is what is needed to improve the overall wellness of our organizations.
Simply put, we should not be questioning whether we can afford firefighter health-and-wellness programs. We should be questioning whether we can afford to avoid them.