The Importance and Structure of a Health Related Fitness Program

CarolinaFireJournal - By Christophir “Smitty” Smith
By Christophir “Smitty” Smith
01/10/2015 -

A surprising majority of fire departments do not have a health related fitness program (HRFP). A HRFP includes fitness assessment, exercise training and health promotion activities. As a firefighter, your health and wellness is imperative for mission readiness. In order to improve the health and overall well being of fire fighting personnel, a proactive approach is the most beneficial means to ensure department members are able to perform when called upon. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1583: Standard on Health-Related Fitness Programs for Fire Department Members is your go to resource for the creation and maintenance of a proactive HRFP. NFPA:1583 was written and designed to be used in conjunction with NFPA 1582: Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments and NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program.

The nature of our work predisposes us to negative health related issues; we should do everything in our power to combat them through the mediums of nutrition, exercise and a lifestyle of physical activity.

Overall, a HRFP is mutually beneficial for both the individual and the department that is hosting the program. When instituted, a HRFP provides a means to enhance your department members’ ability to perform occupational activities efficiently and safely and reduces the risk of injury, disease and premature death. This means a healthier firefighter for his or her tenure at your department. Data shows that departments with a HRFP have a decrease in debilitating occupational injuries, a reduction in workers’ compensation claims, and a decrease in short and long-term health problems.

With this article I have attempted to condense and simplify NFPA 1583 to entice you to create a program for your department if it is currently lacking one. For those of you who have a HRFP I applaud you, you are in the minority. I encourage you to revisit the codes and challenge you to complete a self-audit of your program. This self-audit will allow you to see where the gaps and weak points are in your program. Once identified, you can create a plan of attack to increase the effectiveness of your HRFP to better serve your members.

If your department does not currently have a HRFP the task of creating one can seem daunting. Luckily, you do not have to create an all-encompassing program right off the bat. As a benefit to those departments that currently lack a HRFP but want to institute one, NFPA:1583 allows departments to phase in each portion of the program. This will allow you produce a quality program that has time to gain buy-in from your members. During each phase of implementation you can request and gain feedback from department members to see what topics and subjects matter most to them, what your members want to learn more about, what was successful, and what may need some adjustment to improve the program’s efficacy.

In order to begin your program, you need to understand the roles and components of a HRFP. As the highest ranking officer in the department, the fire chief is ultimately responsible for the program and plays a pivotal role in the program by assigning roles, setting standards for qualifications, and assisting in securing a department physician. The fire chief is responsible for designating the Health and Fitness Coordinator and the Health and Safety Officer, as well as ensuring those who are designated to each position have access to subject matter experts, educational material and formal certifications.

The Health Fitness Coordinator (HFC) is the person who, under the supervision of the fire department physician, has been designated by the department to coordinate and be responsible for the health and fitness programs of the department. This person can be a member of the department or a qualified outside person. Whomever holds this position should have the training and educational background to ensure they are familiar with the unique physical stresses present on the fire ground. The HFC is responsible for administering all of the components of the health-related fitness program including, but not limited to, fitness testing, health promotion programs, medical evaluations and examinations, exercise prescriptions, member assistance programs, oversight of Peer Fitness Trainers, and collecting and maintaining non-identifying program data. The HFC is also a direct liaison for the department members to the departmental physician and Health and Safety Officer.

The Health and Safety Coordinator (HSC) works in conjunction with the HFC to produce health promotion material and activities, and ensures safety during exercise. Health promotion actives are preventive activities that identify real and potential health risks in the work environment and that inform, motivate, and otherwise help people to adopt and maintain healthy practices and lifestyles. The HSC can also be the incident safety officer or these duties can be assigned to another individual as a separate function.

Peer Fitness Trainers (PFT) work under the supervision of the HFC to oversee safe participation in health-related fitness programs such as fitness assessments, individual exercise prescriptions, work sample testing for incumbent members, assist with new hire agility testing, and lead group PT sessions for academy recruits.

As a team, the Health Safety Officer, Health Fitness Coordinator, Peer Fitness Trainers work to provide the following program components:

  • Educational material that describes the benefits of exercise on performance and health
  • Individual exercise prescriptions based on assessments
  • PT warm-up and cool-down guidelines
  • Healthy back exercise program
  • Safety and injury prevention
  • Aerobic and muscular resistance programs

The efforts of each role should be synergistic to provide fire department members a program that improves their health status and promotes a healthy lifestyle.

As you put into place your departmental HRFP it is important to remember a couple of things. First, your members must understand that while the program is mandatory, it is non-punitive. NFPA defines punitive as inflicting or aiming to inflict punishment or sanctions. The HRFP cannot be used as a conduit of real or perceived punishment.

Second, be sure to notify your human resources department director and if present your union head. The last thing you want when trying to implement a HRFP is to surprise either of them. After you notify them of your intentions they may have questions regarding the program such as personnel qualifications, how the programs’ health data will be non-identifying and secured, and how you will ensure the program is non-punitive. Once on board with the program these entities can become a great ally and assist you with including the program in the department’s risk management plan.

Lastly, when you implement the program there will almost certainly be kickback from individuals who believe they are being targeted with its implementation. The members who are out of shape will most likely be opposed. Statements like, “my health is none of your concern” will resonate by those opposed. My advice when dealing with those individuals is this; people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. When given the opportunity please show your members that you have their best interest in mind and their wellbeing is a top priority. When they believe you have the best intentions and are not looking to ostracize them for less than perfect health, it will give credence to your program and ensure the desired outcome of increasing the health and wellness of your department members is met.

Christophir “Smitty” Smith is a firefighter and NCEMT-I for Carrboro Fire-Rescue Department in North Carolina where he serves as the Health and Fitness Coordinator. Smitty holds a bachelor of science degree in exercise sport science. He is a certified tactical strength and conditioning facilitator through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, a sports performance coach through USA Weightlifting and a CrossFit Level 2 Coach with Coaches Prep-Course. Smitty is available for speaking engagements upon request. Contact Smith at [email protected].
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