2014 marked my eighth year competing in Seattle with my 27th stair climb, and numerous runs across the United States and although I am far from being done, I know that the changes I have personally made have decreased the likelihood of health issues resulting in my own death.
Over the past few months I’ve seen the articles, blogs, and social media posts pop up at random with the question of maximum ages in the fire service. From something as simple as do you put an age cap on your members to it’s the older members that are basically giving the fire service a bad health report when it comes to fatalities. The question that truly comes to mind as I look around the service is, are we regulating the right thing, is age what is killing us or is it poor choices that are taking the lives of our brothers and sisters.
Being involved in public service since late 1999 and having worked around a wide variety of first responders I won’t say I’ve seen it all, what I will say is I have seen plenty to base my opinion from. I have worked with firefighters side-by-side from all walks of life, all ages, types of service, backgrounds, and body composition. I’ve seen some of the fittest and some of the least fit out there.
In 1999 I was 21 years old, overweight, out of shape, on the verge of being a statistic health wise. I was joining a volunteer fire department in rural Northwest Ohio and far from the model firefighter that you saw in the calendar, let alone my peers that were of similar age. To be honest I think all we were required to take was a physical in order to get on and pass backgrounds, a selection process and interview.
Fast forward to 2004, a few more years, more bad choices, and not too many changes I was at a crucial point where I could make a change that could potentially make a difference in my life further down the road. I was on a new department, in rural Central Ohio that I continue to serve with. SCBA bottles still didn’t last as long as I felt they should, I tired easily, physically I just didn’t have it and I could admit it. No one was stopping me. There were no tests of physical power and endurance and no one saying hey you need to lose a few pounds to keep in this. It was a cognizant decision that I personally had to make to get in better physical shape and make a change. At the age of 26 I weighed 235 pounds and had a waist of 42 inches, the only shape I was in was round and I knew it.
My defining moment was that I wanted to get in better shape to compete in the Scott Firefighter Stair Climb to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in honor of my mother. I knew I was out of shape and it took me from November of 2004 until March of 2007 when I first competed to make enough change and man was I seeing a difference. What I also saw at these competitions and knew by the time I finished my first Seattle climb was that AGE has little to do with the first service in comparison to physical ability, endurance, health, fitness, and living right. Firefighters in their twenties and thirties getting stomped and by men and women 15-20 years senior who could outlast and outperform them. In 2007 I saw it and could tell you first hand, age is not the issue in the fire service it is physical fitness that are hurting the ranks and chalking up additional LODD every year in the United States. Year after year as I compete in more firefighter-based events and attend regional and national trainings I see it everywhere.
Some of our biggest issues have to do with what goes from the fork, spoon, bowl, and glass to our mouth, not what the date of birth on our license is. Asses in recliners until we absolutely have to answer that call, stagnant complacency to physical activity, poor choices, uneducated nutritional decisions, and unwillingness to change. To top it all off, are departments mandating or even encouraging fitness for their members, I think we know that answer in many cases.
Why are those firefighters having a heart attacks, CVA’s, stress, and exhaustion? Is it the fact that they are 40, 50, or 60, or is it the fact that they are not in shape and have medical conditions that could be prevented? Would a screening catch the fact that they have hypertension and a BMI that are out of whack? What if that 55-year-old firefighter today would have made lifestyle changes 30 years ago and perhaps underwent screenings or did something after getting their results? Questions…questions…questions… The answer is that in the 1970’s and 1980’s when some of the more veteran firefighters were getting their start, the push for fitness, health and wellness programs, and healthcare technology were lacking.
Today in 2014 as we look around the fire service to the new rookies filling the ranks and those with a few layers of soot on their helmet we see a younger generation of men and women that have a chance. We are at a point where we can make a change with this generation of firefighters when it comes to yearly firefighter fatality reports down the road. We as departments, line officers, and fellow firefighters can make a difference and it starts with us. Simple changes and it can start in house as we plan meals, make choices for hydration after calls, and adding activity to our daily routines. Getting up and away from the computer screen CE’s and getting a little dirty out in the apparatus bay are yet another way to make a step toward getting physical activity. When you’re out doing that training, get your personnel in gear, why do I still see us doing certain tasks during training that we would normally be fully geared up for? Do you see football players on the field doing full contact without a helmet? Make your crew get a sweaty and build up some heat while they do the work, a little cardio is good for the body!
The harsh reality is that the firefighter who dies and becomes a statistic at whatever age because of a heart attack didn’t die because of their age they died because an issue that went undetected, undertreated, untreated, and because their body could no longer handle what it was being put through. All too often when it comes to issues in life we treat the wrong thing and turn to the wrong solution. Turn to a wrap to make us look better, a pill or shake to lose weight, and continue the other poor choices.
You can make a difference and it can start today. It can start with the next trip to the kitchen with what you put into your body. It can start with getting up out of the chair and doing work.