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Safety & Health: Checking Our Priorities

What are you and your department doing for the health and safety of your department members? This question troubles many of the fire chiefs as heart attacks continue to be the leading cause of LODD on an annual basis and cancer is making a tremendous impact on our firehouses as well.

Ask a firefighter if he knows another member of the service suffering from cardiovascular disease or cancer, and you soon realize how small our world really is and what impact these two conditions are having on the fire service.

If you really want to drive home the conversation of firefighter health and safety, bring up the topic of mental health. With a tremendous increase in emotional and behavioral health disorders—not to mention firefighter suicides—this difficult topic remains taboo among those hardened by the macho image of the fire service.

Issues such as these are viewed as weaknesses or simply brushed aside and attributed to the individuals’ characteristic: That’s just how (insert name here) is and how he acts.”

So what are you doing as the leader in your department to increase the health and safety of your members?

Fire chiefs and firefighters alike should be demanding comprehensive health and wellness programs for their most valuable resource: department members. Every person should demand to receive not only NFPA 1582-compliant physicals to include cancer screenings, but also treatment and prevention for mental health concerns, nutrition and a complete physical-fitness program.

Every organization should combine to make this a reality not only by endorsing this in words but also by setting the example through actions.

However, this isn’t an issue of consensus in the fire service, but rather one that divides many fire departments and organizations and causes controversy on every level of the fire service, from the local firehouse to the offices of the IAFC.

Firefighters feel threatened by the mere mention of a mandatory physical-fitness program, health assessments and physical performance tests. Firefighters state conspiracy theories against members, such as open medical records, fire chiefs trying to clear house or they won’t let me be a firefighter anymore.

At the same time and on the other side, many fire chiefs are struggling with the concepts associated with health and wellness and its importance for today’s fire service. Mention the words physical or health assessments and monetary excuses comparative to the great depression are quick to flow.

The money needed to get extra light bars on a new engine so it can compare to a UFO—no problem.

The cost of health and wellness efforts is not cheap, but what’s more important than our personnel? The point is that if funding is an issue, there are ways to make physicals and health-and-wellness programs happen if they are priorities. Prioritization of health and safety is a major problem at all levels from organizational to personnel, but it can be accomplished with the right frame of mind.

Some fire chiefs get it. They have tackled this controversial issue but every one of them knows they can do more. Every fire chief must ensure his or her department has a comprehensive health-and-wellness program and educate themselves on what is needed for their membership.

Too often, fire chiefs consider health and wellness, put some weights in a station and all of the sudden they are progressive. Take a trip through the firehouse weight rooms across the United States and you’ll see much of the same free weights, dumbbells and benches with cardio equipment that is not operable or best serves as a radio holder or towel rack.

Thank goodness for Cross Fit, but many in our business view this fitness revolution for the fitness crazed and are often intimidated by the various movements and intense mindset reserved for tire flipping extremists. In reality, cross fit is perhaps one of the greatest movements to come along, and every fire chief should embrace this as cardio and strength training combined to enhance performance movements that relate to our every firefighter.

But let’s not forget, this is about total health and the emphasis on comprehensive program. Physical fitness, including weights and cardio, should be mandatory.

Yes, I said mandatory for every member of your department. Including administrative chiefs. But so should annual physicals, mental health programs, health screenings and so on.

When are we going to quit dancing around this topic and do what the fire service is lacking? Address the topic for the betterment of your department and the fire service. Is there a good argument against a mandatory health-and-wellness program?

Look around your department. It is a difficult topic, but we can all benefit; our people can reach the age of retirement healthy and actually live a long life to enjoy the fruits of their long years of service.

It’s time for everyone in the fire service to get on the same page and make the health of our firefighters a priority. Health-and-wellness lip service is exactly that.

It is time for the fire chiefs and leaders of fire service organizations to tackle this controversial topic in their organizations head on and make a difference to every member of the fire service and their families. Mandatory 1582 physical, mandatory cancer screenings, mandatory fitness programs and mandatory assistance for emotional and behavioral health.

What are you and your department doing for the health and safety of your department members?

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