Protecting Our Responders: The Importance of a Department Health and Wellness Program

By Robert Blaufarb

I have had the honor and privilege to serve my community for more than 25 years. I am an ex-captain of Engine Company 37 for the Town of Mamaroneck Fire Department (TMFD), a combination department located in the state of New York. Three years ago, I was selected as the department’s director of health and wellness, a newly established professional support wing for our men and women. My mission is to provide information (without judgements or dire predictions) that firefighters can use to change the direction of their lives.

I want to share with you my process for setting up my department’s health and wellness program in hopes that you can glean information that can help you do the same in your department. If your department already places an emphasis on health and wellness, you have a decidedly significant advantage. But even so, you may pick up something that can help enhance or improve upon current efforts.

The first step to address the health and safety of our brothers and sisters is to understand that a need absolutely exists. Close to 70% of all adults in the United States are clinically classified as overweight or obese. Being overweight or obese is a leading risk factor for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, many types of cancer, and more. A report released by the National Volunteer Fire Council found that rates of overweight and obesity in the fire service range from 73 to 88 percent, depending on the study. This is cause for alarm since as firefighters we aren’t sitting behind a desk. We do things routinely that would scare the average person, never knowing for certain that we will survive, and that’s the key! Potentially serious and fatal injuries are part of the job, and it is our responsibility to make sure we are doing everything we can to lessen the risks.

If you think we are already doing enough, then consider these sobering facts. Year after year the U.S. Fire Administration reports that the leading cause of on-duty firefighter fatalities is heart attack. In addition, according to the National Fire Protection Association, the leading cause of fireground injuries is overexertion and strain.

The prime objective in the fire service is, has always been, and always will be: “Get Home Safe!” The point I want to make is that each of us is the director of our own health and wellness. The role of a department health and wellness program is to empower each individual to decide upon and support a lifestyle that creates the greatest chances for maximum health and vitality.

Setting up a health and wellness program from the bottom up can be very challenging. Decades of culture and tradition are etched into our DNA. Remember, we are the ones that run in, not out! However, we need to re-examine and modify some of these traditions to ensure the safety of our firefighters and maximize our abilities to perform dangerous tasks and then return home safely.

Because of this, getting the support of the chief and other leaders is essential for success. It also helps to get a few respected and influential firefighters on board to help guide the necessary cultural shift towards improved health and wellness. A health and wellness program is an ongoing effort, and continued support from both actual and perceived department leaders will help others start embracing changes. It is important to note that health and wellness is more than just an annual physical. While a yearly checkup is a critical component, it is a lifestyle that creates the highest degree of positive health while at the same time significantly reduces risks of chronic illness and disease.

The first step in starting my department’s health and wellness program was to get the chief’s approval. Once he was on board, we informed the membership during the department’s monthly meeting. We presented a 20-minute PowerPoint explaining the need for and benefits of a health and wellness program.

Next, I began formulating ways to increase the fitness of our membership. Our firehouse had recently undergone a modernization face-lift, and there was a nice-size room that had been ear marked for storage. I immediately saw the potential and pitched an idea to the chiefs and town supervisor to turn the room into a dedicated work-out facility. I focused on the benefits this would have to our membership and to our abilities to respond, and my request was approved.

Once I had the space, I needed equipment. I knew funding this new venture would prove difficult since the department budget was already being heavily taxed with the purchasing of essential firefighting gear and equipment. Workout equipment can be very expensive, so I went to tag sales to buy what I could. I then approached local gyms as they often donate their used equipment to organizations such as fire and police. I also took out an ad in the local newspaper asking for donations from private citizens. The result of these efforts was the creation of a fully-stocked, dedicated workout facility. We secured very expensive equipment in excellent condition at no cost. The fire department arranged for the donors to receive a tax credit for donating their equipment to the emergency services.

The creation of the TMFD gym along with support from leadership has helped to shift the culture of our department. Members now place greater value and emphasis on fitness, which in turn has led to other positive lifestyle shifts. There are regularly 10 to 20 men and women using the gym every day. As the firefighters began to experience positive changes in their health and energy, they started paying more attention to nutrition. The pizza, burgers, and beer that had been offered during our meeting and drill night meals were replaced with healthier offerings of vegetables, salads, lean protein, and water. Initially, there were a few holdouts who grumbled over the changes, but over the course of time these much healthier choices became the accepted standard. The result of these transitions in fitness and nutrition was a significant improvement in our firefighters’ health and their readiness to perform their duties.

In conjunction with our yearly physicals, the health and wellness program has improved firefighter health and safety by providing individualized nutrition and fitness support for our members and their families. A heightened sense of social interaction and comradery developed through appropriate and beneficial activities that serve the fire department’s interests and the firefighters’ quality of life. The gym is well-equipped for the serious body builder and weightlifter, as well as for general exercise and aerobics. Teenage children of firefighters are welcome to use the facility under supervision, turning fitness into a family activity.

The most significant and essential mission of the health and wellness program is firefighter safety. The fire service in America is proactive and fully supportive of new and advanced technologies that significantly reduce the possibility of injury or death on the fireground. However, the single most important variable in addressing firefighter safety and survival is the firefighter themselves. The fact is that many firefighter injuries and fatalities are the direct result of lifestyle choices the individual has made over the course of their career. The most important tool you can bring to the fireground is you. The state of your health, including high blood sugar, high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, obesity, poor physical conditioning, and all the aches and pains you bring along with you to the scene can increase your potential for serious injury or death. Conversely, if you keep your health in check you can increase your performance on the scene and significantly raise your chances of survival.

Remember, it takes only one alarm to change you and your family’s lives forever. You have the power to achieve a positive state of physical fitness and to eat more nutritiously in order to significantly improve your chances of getting home safely. Aren’t you and your loved ones worth making these changes for?

I urge you to take health and fitness seriously. Talk to your department leaders and members about establishing or revitalizing a department health and wellness program. It is through this positive support structure that we can achieve healthy culture change and best protect ourselves and our team.

Robert Blaufarb is a former captain and current director of health and wellness of Engine Company 37 for the Town of Mamaroneck (NY) Fire Department. He has a master’s degree in health and physical education and advanced degrees in exercise nutrition and physiology. He is also a New York State certified health coach. For any questions about developing a department health and wellness program or about personal health and fitness, contact him at mostcalls@msn.com.