Originally posted on www.isfsi.org
Full Service Training By: Jake Barnes
As fire instructors, all too often we focus on the immediate dangers of firefighting and the corresponding training. We constantly train on air management, R.I.T. teams, Maydays, and more. While this is important, I believe we should also work harder and teach the more chronic aspect of firefighting; the health and wellness portion of the fire service. We are losing brothers and sisters to heart attacks and cancer in alarming numbers. The worst part is we usually have all the equipment to combat this but often we don’t emphasize enough the importance of using the tools and having the knowledge to keep us alive and well into our golden years.
There are many ways we can help our own out when it comes to staying healthy, such as mandatory exercise programs, nutritional education, respiratory programs, and gear washing policies and procedures. With these valuable tools, we can arm our firefighters in the battle for their own health. What I am proposing is a culture change, and I know as well as anyone that change is a nasty word in the fire service. There is nothing more dynamic than the fire service and nothing more static than the firefighter.
So how do we create a revolution around health and wellness in the fire service? The same way we eat an elephant; one bite at a time. Start by designing exercise programs that replicate what we do and how we do it. A program like this would be heavily influenced by cardio. Contact local fitness trainers, or even better, get trained as IAFF Peer Fitness Trainers. Take your workout plan to the doctors that oversee your department physicals and have them review it for recommendations or changes. Also, knowing what your departments are planning to do will help the doctors and their staff conduct a better physical. I wouldn’t attach anything punitive to this part of the process yet. If this is new to the department and firefighters have been “allowed” to get sedentary and overweight then we should allow a reasonable time to get the weight off and build up the needed energy level.
While we support our firefighters to lose weight and become more efficient in their jobs, we can start to build in nutritional education. Yes, this is likely to be met with MUCH resistance and venom. Mess with a firefighters meals and we’re treading in dangerous waters! When I first became the Training Officer in my department, I had a nutritionist come to the fire department and actually cook healthy meals and provide some much-needed education of fats, carbs, and calories. Although the group wouldn’t admit it, several firefighters really enjoyed it and tried to apply what they learned. That’s how a revolution starts, with just a few people.
The modern firefighter is attacked every day at fires by more and more chemicals. Because of this, we need a solid and dynamic respiratory program. This should include wearing our SCBA’s during overhauls and monitoring the air for as many chemicals as we can. By wearing our SCBA’s longer we need to ensure our SCBA’s are comfortable. Yes, the newer SCBA’s are designed with comfort in mind and can make a huge difference when wearing them for a long time. Of course, if we are making our firefighters wear the SCBA’s for extended periods of time then we need a better plan for rehab. This is often seen as Snickers and Gatorade but we need to see this for what it is really designed to do, rehab our firefighters. Have fans, pop-up tents and plenty of water and EMS for vitals.
The suggestions we have talked about so far take time, yet they’re solid investments with astronomical returns. In addition, there is one activity we can incorporate right away to decrease the odds of our rank-and-file from developing cancer: gear washing. The days of wearing your filth as a badge of honor are over; dirty gear now looks like a sign of ignorance. We need to use specialized gear washers and dryers to keep contaminants away from us. Having a second set of turnout gear for our people can be a HUGE step!
There is also a current push in the fire service for field decon, which can be done quickly at the scene as companies prepare to leave. It can be as simple as a booster line and dedicated truck brush to quickly knock off any particulates prior to getting in the truck. Firefighters should have extra gloves and hoods to change at the scene when they change bottles. If the department is lucky enough to have spare gear, then we should have a way to get that gear to the scene after the fire, collect the dirty gear, and have it cleaned with a certified gear washer and dryer. We should have procedures in place so that decon is as expected as picking up hose and filling air bottles so we NEVER let a company go in quarters until they are deconned at the scene.
Like any important change in the fire service we have to start at the top. The chief and his staff need to draft new policies and procedures on all of these programs. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. A few phone calls and emails to local departments that have implemented similar procedures will net great success. We must train our people on these policies and set reachable goals and expectations. And we must have a disciplinary policy in place in the event that departments don’t meet the expected goals. Most importantly, all the chiefs and the staff should lead by example. The administration should be up-front and center leading the charge. I realize as an administrator that our eight-hour days have 10 hours’ worth of work. Still, we have to make time for us and for them. We must be vigilant in advocating for firefighter health and wellness.