The National Volunteer Fire Council’s Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Health, available on the Safety and Health Week website, highlight practices that leaders should establish in their departments and that responders should follow throughout the year. This article highlights some of these rules and how to make health and wellness a top priority in your department.
Build the BEST SMART Health and Wellness Program You Can
The SMART method for success has been touted for many endeavors, and firefighter health and wellness is no different. In developing your department’s program, make sure it meets SMART requirements; define your objectives to be:
- Specific – Be very clear about what success will look like. Can your members picture the end result with ease and clarity? Do they know what being healthy and fit means specifically for them? Can they envision what it will look like across the department?
- Measurable – Determine how you’ll quantify or measure achievement. How will you and your members know the goal has been reached? Is there a number associated with the goal: a target weight or fat percentage? Is there an increased ability to be obtained, and if so, specifically what is it?
- Attainable – Define your goals according to what can realistically be achieved and share them in a way that obtains buy-in from your members. Do your members believe they can get to the endpoint or are they skeptical about the process?
- Realistic – Determine if the department and your members can both meet and maintain achieved goals as you’ve defined them. Have members committed to working towards the goal or are they resisting because they feel that it’s overreaching?
- Time – Set a realistic timeline for accomplishing the goals. How will you fit them into the department’s and your members’ schedules? If a lot is needed to meet your goals, have you allowed enough time for your members to get there? Or is the goal so far off that there’s little motivation to act towards achieving it?
As you build your department’s SMART plan to be a fit and healthy department, incorporate the NVFC’s BEST Practices model: focus on Behavior, Equipment, Standards and Codes, and Training to create a realistic and achievable program:
- Address the Behavior changes the department and members can make and programs you can put in place for a more fit fire company.
- Identify and acquire the Equipment needed to achieve the desired end results.
- Use such Standards as NFPA 1500 as guidelines to establish baseline and end-of-line fitness results.
- Training can come from within the department or from outside sources. It may be possible to incorporate health and wellness into existing fire training, such as with air consumption drills, or new health and wellness training may be necessary.
Establish Your Program
The most important step in establishing a health and wellness program is to get started! Regardless of budget constraints, do whatever you can with whatever resources are available.
In my area, several hospitals come to the department for baseline vitals and BMI assessments for free. For a modest charge, glucose and cholesterol levels can also be done. After the results are available, the hospital’s wellness coordinator will provide health and wellness education and suggest health and fitness activities at no cost.
Who’s Responsible for Implementing a Health and Wellness Initiative?
We’re all responsible.
Individuals and company and chief officers share equal responsibility for establishing and following procedures and practices that improve the department’s health and fitness.
The fire service has adopted situational awareness as a means for incident safety, and this is applies to being healthy. Many firefighters who have had baseline vitals and health screenings done by the NVFC didn’t know they had abnormal blood pressure or poor levels of cholesterol.
If your department’s health insurance provides for annual physicals, encourage members to take advantage of them. Firefighters must be aware of their own overall health and fitness and know if they have any conditions that render them at risk or not well enough for duty.
Company officers are responsible for the health and wellness of those they supervise. They need to know if members are fit and well enough to perform their jobs. When members’ health or wellness is in doubt, COs must make those members aware of polices and resources available. Not doing so is an abdication of responsibility and can lead to an LODD or compromise the safety of the entire crew.
Senior management is ultimately responsible for firefighter safety; health and wellness is no different. Chief officers should acquire the resources needed for a comprehensive, achievable and effective firefighter health and wellness program.
Getting and Staying Healthy and Fit
Having well and fit firefighters is no different from having safe and properly operating fire equipment. Actually, it’s more important; firefighters are the most important and valuable department resource.
Trying to accomplish a daunting task, such as achieving and maintaining wellness and fitness, can be easier with support from peers, family members, friends and physicians. When trying to reach our goals, we sometimes forget about plateaus and backsliding—normal in any weight loss, strength or wellness program.
This is when personal support systems can be of tremendous value! Your members’ support networks can remind them of their progress and encourage them to continue on when they’re ready to quit.
It’s also important to be patient with achieving the program’s goals. If members aren’t where they want to be yet, remind them that it took time to get into that condition and it will take at least as long to get back to where they want to be. Encourage them to allow themselves some fun and occasional treats—as long as they are just treats, not a complete abandonment of health and wellness goals.
We all need to be fit and healthy firefighters, both to do our jobs safely and effectively and for ourselves and our loved ones. A complete annual physical and a health and wellness program that includes a nutritious diet, exercise and tobacco cessation will help ensure that after our fire careers are behind us, we’ll still be healthy and well enough to enjoy our golden years.
Kenn Fontenot is the National Volunteer Fire Council’s Louisiana director and chair of the NVFC Health and Safety Committee. He is a charter member and the first fire chief of the LeBlanc Volunteer Fire Department. Fontenot is a past president of the Louisiana State Firemen’s Association.