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Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival: Is Obesity an Overbearing Burden on the Fire Service?

Two recently published studies, funded by the Assistance to Firefighter Grant program, focused on the impact of obesity in the American fire service and the deleterious role it plays in terms of both safety and economically. The studies, one published in the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the other at ObesityJournal.org, were unique in that they focused specifically on fire service obesity as compared to the general population.

Much has been reported and written on obesity being an epidemic within the public health of the U.S population and of adolescents; it should come as no surprise that the fire service is not immune from this troubling reality and its link to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, co-morbidity and mortality. Of course, cardiovascular disease continues to be the greatest cause of line-of-duty deaths within the American fire service.

Both of the published studies, “Obesity & Injury-Related Absenteeism in a Population-Based Firefighter Cohort” and “The Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Substandard Fitness in a Population-Based Firefighter Cohort,” should serve as a call to arms for the current picture of health and wellness of the U.S. fire service. These studies reported that in the study populations, both career and volunteer fire service personnel had a high prevalence of being overweight and obese as demonstrated by body-mass indices (BMI).

The authors noted that the prevalence in the groups they studied actually exceeded that found or reported in the general U.S. population base. With what may seem intuitive to most, the authors note that the higher BMI percentage was linked to higher rates of cardiovascular disease and higher rates of on-the-job disability.

In addition to the obvious line-of-duty death potential that may be fueled by obesity, study authors also concluded that the economic impacts to the fire service are significant. Non-fatal occupational injuries in the fire service have been reported as being above 80,000 annually with an estimated annual economic impact of as high as $7.8 billion to employers. Study authors concluded that overweight and obese firefighters have higher rates of absenteeism than their non-overweight or non-obese counterparts do.

Additionally, the more-obese or -overweight firefighters experienced longer periods of absence in recovering from work-related injuries. The risk was so great that a 1% increase in body mass was equated with a 5% increase in risk of job-related disability.

While these findings may or may not surprise some in the fire service, they certainly should validate a serious need to commit to firefighter health and wellness programs as paramount to protecting the members of the U.S. fire service.

While we have been making strides at reducing preventable line-of-duty deaths and injuries, the work of these two most recent analytic and scientific reviews should prod each and every fire service leader to pause and reflect. Are we doing enough to ensure the wellness of our firefighters? Are we providing them with the necessary tools, resources and information to ensure that their fitness and wellness affords them the greatest degree of safety and survival both on and off the job?

Todd LeDuc, MS, CFO, CEM, MIFireE, is an assistant fire chief for Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff Fire Rescue. He’s also a director at large for the Safety, Health and Survival Section.

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