“Maybe today,” I thought, several times. “No, its been long enough since the last LODD, it should be fine now to speak up,” I’ve told myself a hundred times in thinking about expressing my thoughts on the subject. The time however has come, and we must put a stop to it, we need to make changes, and it needs to happen now. I simply can’t wait for another firefighter to die due to circumstances that are somewhat preventable. Firefighter health, fitness, and wellbeing needs to be addressed and with more than a memo and some lip service. In the year 2004, at the Firefighter Safety Summit in Tampa, FL, Medical and Physical Fitness was selected as Life Safety Initiative #6. The goal at that time was to develop initiatives (http://www.everyonegoeshome.com/16-initiatives/) and material to support implementation, sadly the numbers over the years have fluctuated little. How many Chiefs out there know that Initiative #6 dealt with Medical and Physical Fitness? Does your fireboard, your village council, city council, or budget committees know the initiatives and why these are important?
We have done well over the years to reduce Line of Duty Deaths (LODD) from a large chunk of firefighter fatalities, however what about the other 50-percent that is not fully being looked at. More specifically I would like to address the deaths caused by stress or overexertion that are taking a large toll on our brotherhood. We aren’t talking a small number here either. In the Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 2013 report from the U.S. Fire Administration (November 2014) they detail the following:
With the exception of 2013 and 2008 in this, the numbers are all above that 50-percent mark and the average still remained above that over a 10-year period.
Now lets discuss the year 2014 and see what happened. While the number of LODD decreased to 64 in the year 2014, the percentage of deaths from Stress, Overexertion, and medical issues increased to 58-percent. In this diagram from the NFPA (http://www.nfpa.org/research/reports-and-statistics/the-fire-service/fatalities-and-injuries/firefighter-fatalities-in-the-united-states) we can see the saddening and information in full color.
As of September 14, the number of LODD reported in our current year of 2015 stands at 60 firefighters, and for once while editing this article no new ones have occurred. What has continued however is the trend for firefighter fatalities related to those health and fitness issues to be extremely high. While the list of current LODD for this year located on the USFA website does not specify complete details of the deaths, 40-of-60 deaths mention medical issues. While that information may fluctuate once the final determinations are made and they are completely categorized, it would appear that 66-percent of the deaths are medical related at this point.
We have spent countless hours, years, an undetermined amount of financial resources to work on improving safety and the way we operate to improve the firefighter fatality statistics. We have drills, tools, and many things we do which are named after our very brothers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. We have lost them due to air emergencies, equipment failures, apparatus failures, communication failures, structural failures, command issues, and a long list of items that have contributed to their demise.
With all the rules that have been created, the reports, the articles, the studies, and the deaths, how frequently are we seeing more than talk? Thankfully out of the concern for the health issues amongst the fire service we have seen some great organizations come along that have our wellbeing in mind. 555 Fitness and FirefighterFitness are the first two that come to mind as I have followed them for a while and you should to. Workouts, plans, nutrition and discussion of how to not be a statistic and instead be more firefighter fit are just a little of what they offer. There are many other fire fitness programs and sites out there, but what I want to point out is that these in most cases are Firefighter level driven or driven from outside the firehouses and having to work their way in.. There are a lot of us working this from the bottom up, but from the top down we struggle to get the change.
Indeed the changes that we have made and the guidelines, rules, procedures, and training that we have are written in the blood of our brothers. Isn’t it time we start to address the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about? What will it take before not just individual firefighters take it seriously or we get the buy in from above?
What can be done?
Action for our health and wellbeing needs to happen and it needs to start today. Do we call it the spoon and fork drill, the read the label drill, the portion drill, or maybe even the get off your ass and do some cardio drill? I don’t know that the exact solution that’s going to work everywhere, but I can tell you this, the solution isn’t as difficult as you want to believe. Solutions don’t require the sign off of your Chief, your Officers, or the Mayors Office; the solutions can start with your shift, your firefighters, but most importantly, you!
Anyone can start fixing the issue of Firefighter Health, Fitness, and Wellbeing, but having solidarity amongst your department makes any project be more successful and see changes across the board.
For me it was two parts and really this can make a difference for anyone on a personal level. The first part was eating/drinking right, and the second was physical activity.
Eating/drinking correctly is multi-faceted and includes the content of what you’re putting in your body, the portion size, and educating yourself a little on nutrition. Are you drinking pop (soda for some), energy drinks, high calorie hydration drinks, or even alcohol to excess? Reducing the amount of those high calorie, high sugar, high carb drinks right off the bat can go a long way to dropping weight and making changes to your blood pressure. When it comes to that dinner plate, watching the portions that you put onto it also can go a long way into changing your health. That heaping piles of pasta that’s dripping of sauce probably isn’t the way to go. That burger with the excess dressing and condiments likewise isn’t a great choice. Did you know that often times those sauces and dressings that your meals are immersed in can total hundreds of calories? I’m not saying get rid of it, but try going “light” on the sauce, or even getting things on the side.
The second part was physical activity. Riding the recliner should not be a riding position on the board at your firehouse, get up and do something. For me it was joining a gym and starting a cardio and weights regimen. Without going into full detail in this post, you can check out my other post at http://ffclimb4cures.com/?p=297 titled “Are we Regulating the Right Thing in the Fire Service for more information. The fact of the matter is that (according to the American Heart Association) you need to be completing some type of moderate intensity aerobic activity at least 30 minutes, five days a week. More importantly if because of your time commitments to work and home you can’t hit that goal, at least be making a good faith effort. Can’t make five times a week, what about three and extending the time out to 45-minutes?
There is a third part, but that wasn’t really what got me kicked in gear. I knew from how I felt, looked, and performed that I was out of shape and at risk. When I got my blood tests and went to the doctor it only confirmed the pending potential of issues. The third part is getting your annual physical, those yearly tests that no one likes, and the related checkup from the top down. Maybe those tests will find nothing; maybe they will be an early detection of something that can be treated before getting worse.
When we can get the buy in to push for yearly testing, yearly physicals, fitness incentives, programs, maybe some equipment, and increased activity we are going to start seeing change. It’s not going to be quick in some cases, but the sooner that we start to address health, the sooner we have the potential to stop the senseless deaths. Is it going to cost us? Yes, implementing some changes comes with cost, but to those decision makers out there I ask what is the life of your firefighters worth? Maybe to put things in more perspective, what is YOUR life worth?
Over the last ten years of changing my life and traveling to compete, I have seen some of the healthiest looking firefighters diagnosed with a variety of diseases. I have seen some of the strongest looking perish from health related issues and people say one day I was feeling fine and the next I’m in the hospital.
Challenge your brothers, challenge your department, your officers, chiefs, and communities; challenge them to embrace and do something to begin saving more lives. Change the firehouse meals, add cardio intense activity, look to adding fitness equipment, take testing and physicals seriously, create a plan to make a difference, and lets begin reducing these LODD.
It starts today.