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Fire Service Opportunity: Transforming Community Wellness

Most fire departments across the globe have within their missions a primary responsibility to protect life in their communities. The incidence of fire continues to trend down due in large part to prevention efforts and life-safety and building codes being more stringent.

A transformation has occurred that has shifted much of fire departments' demand for service to providing emergency medical services. A significant portion of that demand is driven by a public crisis fueled by an increasingly obese and sedentary population base besieged with diseases, such as elevated cholesterol levels, elevated blood-sugar levels and hypertension.

This "axis of harm" often lies silently, taking its toll on individual's cardiovascular and arterial systems until they explode with such emergencies as heart attack, stroke and sudden cardiovascular death.

Fire departments have successfully deployed risk-mitigation strategies through prevention bureau efforts aimed at reducing the risk of fire and limiting loss from inherent fire-protection systems. These efforts have made significant inroads at reducing community fire loss.

As a result, in many communities protected by fire services, the demand has largely shifted to emergency medical demand. Similar prevention strategies robustly developed and deployed by the fire service would provide an opportunity to transform public health from what has been described as an obesity epidemic to community wellness.

Transformation opportunities often present themselves in circumstances that provide for the ability to affect lasting change. Such is the case with the current state of health and wellness of the American population.

Public-health data confirms that America is besieged with a devastating number of cardiovascular deaths, disease and disability, which extracts a great toll on individuals, families, health-care systems and our economy. To address this, many fire departments have begun outreach efforts at community screenings, offering such services as blood-pressure and blood-glucose checks.

However, given the magnitude of this health epidemic, a more comprehensive, coordinated prevention strategy, combined with the local public-health and medical community, would provide for a more meaningful approach to effecting community health change. Such strategies could include screenings, citizen education, health coaching, follow-up and referral led by the fire service in partnership with health care and community stakeholders.

Research has demonstrated that the loss of just 10% of body weight has a dramatic impact on reducing the negative health effects of obesity and its disease processes. Further research has suggested that participants successfully respond to education, screening and coaching.

These realities provide a roadmap for the fire service that is well positioned within a community—both strategically and as trusted servants who have demonstrated a proven desire to mitigate community risk through thoughtful prevention strategies.

The fire service has been proactive in prevention strategies with fire risk, and the new service-demand shifts present an ideal opportunity for fire departments to lead, in partnership with public health stakeholders to address this growing community risk.

Prevention strategies, to be highly effective and successful, require resources. The challenge that the fire service can accept is to transform funding opportunities to match the new frontier of community demand and risk that many communities are faced with.

This no doubt will require creative and thoughtful alliances and strategic partnerships driven by profit and nonprofit, public and private stakeholders alike to amass a constellation of resources and tools to combat this national challenge. Stakeholders that the fire service could mobilize include public-health systems, federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, and pharmaceutical and insurance interests, among others.

What makes this an even more poignant challenge for the American fire service is that it isn't just the community we serve that's confronted with this struggle; we continue to lose the majority of firefighters from preventable cardiovascular processes.

Whether you consider this a call to arms or a new frontier of transformational prevention opportunity for the fire service, the time to act is now.

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