Obesity in the fire service

Tipping the scales: The life you save may be your own

CarolinaFireJournal - Joe Woodall
Joe Woodall
04/23/2012 -

Well it looks as though the days of poking fun at our donut eating law enforcement colleagues are over. Just in case you haven’t heard, a study commissioned by the National Volunteer Fire Council directed at examining obesity in the American fire service was recently released. The authors, Haddock, Poston and Jahnke (2011) brought forth some staggering news: “Rates of overweight and obese individuals in the fire service are higher than those found in the general public, ranging from 73 percent to 88 percent of firefighters.”

As a retired firefighter (2003) and currently working as a community college fire protection program chair, my experience made me think that the study must be flawed. Since I hold a Ph.D., I immediately decided to delve into the details of the study in an effort to examine its validity. After close examination of the methodology it became obvious that the study had produced reliable data and was conducted in a very thorough and valid manner.


My next reaction was to wonder how this could be happening. Over the 20-plus years serving as an active firefighter (1982-2003) and my almost 10 years retired (2003-2012) but still working closely with many fire departments, I was of the understanding that we were finally starting to understand the importance of physical fitness and mental health. And, more importantly, we had undertaken many national and local initiatives, like annual member medical physicals and physical fitness evaluations, in an effort to improve our health and wellness.

The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) have been working closely together for over 13 years through the Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative (WFI). The IAFC, IAFF and 10 local union-municipality pairs joined together to form the Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness-Fitness Task Force. The task force has dedicated itself to developing holistic, positive, rehabilitating and educational approaches to wellness and fitness programs in the fire service. The task force has developed the following three programs:

The Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness/Fitness Initiative-The Wellness/Fitness Initiative (WFI) is designed for fire service personnel. It requires a commitment by labor and management to a positive, individualized wellness-fitness program. The manual includes information on these topics:

  • Fitness evaluation
  • Medical evaluation
  • Rehabilitation
  • Behavioral health
  • Data collection

The Candidate Physical Ability Test-The Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) was developed as a fair and valid evaluation tool to assist in the selection of firefighters, and to ensure that all firefighter candidates possess the physical ability to complete critical tasks effectively and safely. The CPAT Program covers every aspect of administering the CPAT, including:

  • Recruiting and mentoring programs
  • Providing recruits with fitness guidance to help prepare them for the CPAT
  • Setting up and administering the test

The Fire Service Peer Fitness Trainer Certification-The IAFF/IAFC Task Force has determined that successful implementation of the Wellness/Fitness Initiative and the CPAT requires a fire fighter in each department who can take the lead. This individual must have the ability to design and implement fitness programs, to improve the wellness and fitness of his or her department and to assist with the physical training of recruits. This need for a department-level leader led to the development of the Fire Service Peer Fitness Trainer certification program. The program is being developed in conjunction with the American Council on Exercise.

(For more information on the WFI go to: http://iafc.org/Programs/content.cfm?ItemNumber=1167)

Why We are Where We Are

A sound framework is in place and many fire departments are actively involved in addressing the physical health and wellness of their members. However, if the study noted above is taken into consideration, some deeper examination as to our lack of progress should be undertaken. Sociologically speaking, our lack of progress in the area of weight management and physical fitness probably has a lot to do with the fire service culture. If we look closely at where we’ve been we can get a pretty good idea of why we are where we are. The fire service has been operating under several variations of the 24-on-48-off shift for many generations. This configuration evolved from a 24 hour, seven days a week version in the early fire service. In those early days of the first career fire departments, firefighters were rotated off the apparatus to go home and eat with their families, if the staffing allowed them to do so. During this period over-eating was not necessarily a problem because most families did not have the income from which to over indulge. Overtime the American fire service made schedule changes to include first the 96 hour week, then the 72 hour week and finally the 56 hour week that career firefighters enjoy today. As firefighters started taking their meals at the fire house, the ‘meal’ grew in importance and stature. A great deal of the day was spent in the planning and preparation of supper. Most fire companies had identified a great cook; a position of high prestige and honor to those chosen. The fire house cook went to great effort to build and maintain a department wide reputation. The meal not only grew in importance; it also grew in size and calorie content.

Throughout fire service history many efforts have been directed at fire prevention which has led to a rather marked decrease in the number of working fires that must be suppressed. This is a good thing for the fire service and those we serve but this trend has also decreased the amount of physical labor required of the modern firefighter. Firefighters of the past ate like construction workers because they expended a large amount of calories on most days. The ‘meal’ was frequently ‘burned-off’ on the fireground. In essence, the number of working fires has decreased but the size of the ‘meal’ has not. Of course this is a rather simple solution to a complex problem but does serve as an example that not all traditions are good ones and that we should always examine our past in an effort to better understand the present and plan for the future.

The fire service has what can be considered a consistent national culture grounded in our history and evolution. However, each department possesses its own cultural nuances and should examine the available resources; selecting or creating health and wellness programs that will work for their organization.

Resources in Your Own Back Yard: A Call to Action

The community college has long been an ally and resource for the fire service. The fire service partners with their local community college in most parts of the country. In North Carolina the fire service relies on the community college to supply continuing education, fire and EMS related certifications and curriculum programs leading to academic degrees and certificates. An important role of the community college is to serve as a community resource. As part of the community, the local community college is dedicated to playing an active role in community problem solving. The health and physical fitness of the local firefighter, law enforcement and emergency medical responders is an extremely important community health issue; not only impacting the responder but the entire population of those they serve. With this in mind, it would probably be a good idea to expand the partnership to include firefighter health, wellness and safety.

Setting the Bar for Fitness, Wellness and Safety

The Rowan-Cabarrus Community College (RCCC) Fire Protection Technology (FPT) program and the Fire/EMS Continuing Education Division are in the process of playing a positive role in firefighter health, wellness and safety. Starting in the fall 2012 semester, RCCC’s FPT program will be offering PED 111 Physical Conditioning I and PED 112 Physical Conditioning II as elective courses in the Traditional and Fire Officer’s Academy degree paths and these courses will be required for students pursuing the Fire College degree path. The FPT program has proposed the utilization of fire department certified Peer Fitness Trainers in these courses and will be working closely with our fire department partners. In addition to this innovative approach, the RCCC Fire/EMS Continuing Education Division and the FPT program have jointly purchased all of the required equipment for the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) and, with the cooperation of our service area fire departments plan to become a licensed CPAT regional provider within the next year.

Firefighter health, wellness and safety also encompasses mental health. In an effort to further demonstrate RCCC’s holistic commitment, the FPT program is now offering HSE 245 Stress Management as a requirement in all three FPT degree paths. Stress is a common component of the firefighter’s job and should be addressed in the same aggressive manner as physical fitness, physical wellness and safety. Finally, the RCCC FPT and Fire/EMS Continuing Education Division are in the process of proposing the RCCC Center for Firefighter Health, Wellness and Safety. This proposed center will conduct annual symposia on pertinent and applicable health, wellness and safety topics directed at enhancing the work and home lives of North Carolina firefighters.

With the committed efforts of fire service members, fire departments, fire service associations, community colleges and local health related resources the physical fitness and weight management challenges facing our firefighters can be successfully met and mitigated. No single resource can tackle this problem but together we can all play an important role and enhance the lives and performance of those who so bravely serve.

Dr. S. Joseph Woodall is a retired fire department captain now serving as the Fire Protection Technology Program Chair at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. He is a North Carolina Licensed Professional Counselor, a National Certified Counselor and holds the North American Master’s Prepared Certification as a Psychotherapist. His latest book, “Case Studies for Emergency Responders; psychosocial, ethical and leadership dimensions” is available through amazon.com and other book outlets.
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