One of the most important things for a firefighter/EMS personnel is to maintain their physical health. Firefighting is one of the Nation’s most dangerous and hazardous jobs. 72 percent of the countries firefighters are volunteers. Volunteer firefighter fatalities accounted for 73 percent of all firefighting–related deaths in 2006. The leading cause of on duty death among volunteers is heart attack. The leading cause of injuries for all firefighters is overexertion and strain. This exemplifies the need for a comprehensive health and wellness program in every department.
In the USFA publication, Four Years Later – A second Needs Assessment, they found that only a quarter of the surveyed departments nationwide had a program to maintain basic first responder fitness and health. In 2003, the NVFC identified 16 volunteer departments with experience in health and wellness programs. Each having its own approach and goals towards the program, it was found that only half of the departments stated their programs were well received. The three most relevant problems identified was the lack of funding, lack of defined requirements and the inability to keeps members motivated.
In solving the three problem areas look into the following for your department. To find sources for funding your program look at FEMA grants, such as the USFA Assistance to Firefighters Grant program or foundations and corporate donations, and fundraisers. Define the requirements needed by members and what is expected of them. To keep them motivated, keep the environment welcome to health and wellness. Throw a bowflex and treadmill or something similar in a corner of the fire station. Not only will members be more inclined to stay fit but keeps them around the fire department and improves response times!
The legality issues are more relevant more so than ever for volunteer fire departments conducting a health and wellness program. OSHA considers all volunteers employees, and a health and safety plan is required of all employers. Most volunteer departments are way behind on a program. The lack of fitness and then engaging in sudden intense physical activity is likely more dangerous than all the other stuff than what fire departments preach about. Implement a strong health and wellness program it is a requirement.
Whether you are creating or revising your health and wellness program, the following components are recommended:
– regular fitness screenings and medical evaluations
– fitness program (cardiovascular, strength and flexibility training)
– behavioral modification (smoking, hypertension, diet, cholesterol, diabetes)
– volunteer education
– screening volunteer applicants
With these program components, volunteers will pay more attention to their personal health and wellness, as well as fellow firefighters which will contribute to improving the department overall. Of course not every department can implement all of these components, especially on the volunteer level. It is still far better to get the ball rolling and establish a program with at least some of these components than to do nothing at all.
Regular fitness screenings and medical evaluations is your foundation for a successful program. The NFPA 1582, Standard or Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments provides a set of guidelines for medical testing and screening which simplifies this.
A fitness program should include both physical activity and exercise. Improving individual physical condition and endurance reduces the risk of heart attacks and other firefighting problems. Strength and flexibility training can effectively develop musculoskeletal strength, endurance and functional movement. It is also strongly recommended for health, fitness, injury prevention, rehabilitation and improving one’s overall quality of life.
Behavioral modification is another core component of a comprehensive health and wellness program. Firefighters and emergency services personnel will want to address any preexisting health conditions and personal behaviors that heighten their risks of CVD or other injuries.
Educating is another key component to a program. Educating includes health and fitness awareness, stress management, lifting properly, injury prevention, etc. The more educated a firefighter is on this issue, the less the probability of an injury of himself as well as others working around him/her.
Screening volunteer applicants is another good component to the program as recruiting people with good fitness habits makes your health and wellness program stronger. Looking at Brodhead Fire Department in Wisconsin, they see that medical requirements has affected their membership numbers, yet they have found they would rather have fewer members who are healthy and capable of performing firefighter duties than more members who are not physically fit for the job.
So get active with your department in either implementing or improving a health and wellness program. Prevent your fire department from contributing to the firefighter death and injury statistics. “We check the oil in our engines, make sure the tire tread is good and the brakes work. But the human asset for our fire department is really what gets the job done,” Joe Kerr OCPEA President.