During an interview before joining the fire department I said, “I think I’m in pretty good shape.”
It wasn’t a complete lie. Seven years before I smoked and tipped the scale at 260 pounds. I quit smoking, lost 80 pounds, put 20 back on – so in the scheme of my battle of the bulge, “pretty good shape” was a fair assessment. After all, I went from couch to 5K before the C25K even existed.
Then a Captain who had been stone-faced to that point smirked.
It was a couple months into my Firefighter 1 training before I figured that smirk out. There I was, in full gear with Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), crawling on a concrete floor with my hood turned backwards so I couldn’t see (I tried to cheat by leaving a tiny corner exposed, but it didn’t help). Fumbling around on achy knees, heart racing, sounding like Darth Vader in my head, I was in full panic mode.
I realized that I was, in fact, in pretty bad shape.
In my defense, crawling’s not a skill I’ve been keeping up on since I learned how to walk. But in firefighter training, there’s a lot of it. In smoke-filled environments, the closer to the ground, the better the visibility … so you crawl … and you crawl … around the firehouse bay floor, and up and down concrete stairs in Middletown’s Training Tower – pulling and pushing charged hoses as instructors bark at you, again and again and again.
By virtue of the training itself, many people assume that firefighters must be in great physical shape. In fact, the rate of firefighter obesity outpaces the national average with about 73 to 88 percent of cases in the Fire Service, according to a National Volunteer Fire Council and U.S. Fire Administration–funded report.
Heart attacks — not burns or smoke — have long been the most frequent cause of firefighter deaths on the job. A 2007 Harvard study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the risk of heart attack is highest when firefighters are working at a fire scene, with increased odds ranging from 10 to 100 times the normal risk of heart attack. Another revelation from that study is that while firefighters spend only 1 to 5 percent of their time putting out fires, 32 percent of heart attack deaths happen at fire scenes.
Firefighters also contend with respiratory diseases that can take years to develop. A fire emergency is an uncontrollable environment without occupational or safety controls. The use of SCBAs help mitigate the risks in IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health) environments, which often contain high concentrations of carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, among other things. These contaminants threaten health not only in fires, but also during the overhaul phase when fires are extinguished and clean up begins. Then there are the day-to-day, short-term exposures to things like fumes from diesel-fueled apparatus that, if left unchecked, pose long-term health consequences.
As for the weight epidemic among firefighters, the Harvard study points to a number possible causes, like poor diets high in processed carbohydrates and sugar that promote obesity and cardiovascular disease. Elevated blood pressure is another issue. According to International Association of Fire Chiefs, about three-quarters of Emergency Responders (firefighters, police officers and EMS personnel) have hypertension or prehypertension, a major risk factor in cardiovascular disease. With obesity on the rise, that number is only expected to increase.
Sleep disruptions also place firefighters at a greater risk for weight gain. Sleep deprivation is endemic in the Fire Service, among both shift-working career firefighters and volunteers. Bad things don’t happen after dinner, a shower or cup of coffee, and sleep deprivation can result from those odd hour calls or simply in anticipation of a pager going off. Studies show that sleep disruptions, in combination with disrupted “body clock” rhythms, can change a person’s metabolism and foreshadow obesity and diabetes.
So what’s the good news? With a few simple changes, firefighters can better prepare themselves for their tough job. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) recommends firefighters maintain proper body weight and body mass index (BMI) values, keep blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood glucose in check, and undergo periodic medical examinations for early recognition of underlying cardiovascular disease.
One of my Fire Instructors jokingly referred to the Fire Service as “Years of tradition unimpeded by progress,” but while it’s still met by some resistance, the Fire Service as a whole is moving towards more comprehensive health and wellness programs, focusing on strength training, flexibility, proper diet, smoking cessation and cardio workouts.
Cardio training like running on a treadmill or working out on an elliptical machine promotes blood flow to the body, strengthens the heart muscle and increases lung capacity. The NVFC’s Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program motto is: “It takes a person with heart to do your job. Keep it strong.” Greater lung capacity is equally important; air management is vital to a successful fireground operation. Stronger lungs mean a lower air consumption rate and making the most of an air cylinder under physically demanding conditions.
Haddam Fire encourages its members to take stay active. Station 1 features a well-equipped fitness room with free weights, two stationary bikes and a treadmill. The Fire Company also promotes activities like field day competitions or the upcoming American Lung Association Fight for Air stair climb where firefighters in full gear and SCBA will climb one of Hartford’s tallest buildings.
Haddam firefighters are also required to take part in a medical assessment that, based on age and condition, may include bloodwork, a stress test, pulmonary function tests and other physical exams. The outcomes of these evaluations may limit a firefighter’s on-scene assignments in a set of tiered classifications. In addition, drivers with Commercial Drivers Licenses (CDLs) are required to maintain their fit-for-duty physical exams so they are safe behind the wheel.
As for me, if anyone ever asks, my answer went from “pretty good shape” to “working on it.”
A couple weeks ago, the guy fitting me for new gear asked my weight. I said, “200 … ish.” “Ish?” “Hey man,” I said, “it’s February. Give me a break.” If there’s ever a month to be a little pudgy, it’s February. I have a desk job, so I do what I can, forcing myself to exercise at lunch, usually jogging a couple miles outside. During periods of high stress I fall back on bad habits, but I always get back on track.
The worst thing to do, especially for firefighters, is to stop working at it.
Some online resources for firefighters who need a little motivation:
NVFC Heart Healthy Firefighter, http://www.healthy-firefighter.org
International Association of Firefighters, http://www.iaff.org/hs/index.htm
More information on the activities of the Haddam Volunteer Fire Co. and ways you can get involved can be found on our website www.HaddamFire.com, or find us on Facebook.