Union Fire District Takes on Health, Safety, and the Tough Mudder

Union Fire District Deputy Fire Chief and NVFC board member Kevin Quinn recounts the successes of his department’s safety and health programs and taking on (and persevering through) the Tough Mudder challenge.

By Deputy Chief Kevin Quinn, Union Fire District, Rhode Island
Five years ago, the Union Fire District formed a Health and Safety Committee to review the day-to-day operations of the fire district. The committee formulated a mission statement, created a health and safety vision for the district, and coined the district’s motto of “Safety Always.” A high priority was placed on a campaign to improve safety and health among our firefighters.

Over the years many major changes in policy, tactics, and operations have been instituted as part of this campaign. We are proud of our accomplishments and have seen a reduction in injuries, accidents (including vehicles), and an over-arching acceptance of the Safety Always theme within the entire Union Fire District. Due to the diligence of our Health and Safety Committee, fire district leadership, and the support of our Board of Wardens, we have moved to a healthier, safer volunteer fire department.

There are several initiatives that the Health and Safety Committee has implemented that are worthy of special mention. One is the creation of our Collision Review Board (CRB). After a stream of minor apparatus incidents, the Health and Safety Committee, led by our ISO Deputy Chief Steve Pinch, implemented a new review board that conducts a mandatory investigation of any vehicle incident within the district. Since the CRB has been established, we have seen a significant reduction in apparatus incidents. Another highly successful vehicle safety measure has been the enforcement of our mandatory seat belt policy. We are extremely proud that all of our volunteer firefighters are in compliance.

One of our most successful programs has been the creation and progress of our fitness center to encourage and promote improved health and wellness. The idea was a brainstorm of a few key leaders. Four years ago, our eight fire stations shared a few random pieces of exercise equipment, some weights, and an aging treadmill or two. The proposal was to incorporate a centrally-located fitness center at the Union Fire District headquarters, which is also the location of our training ground. A presentation was made to the Board of Wardens to support the UFD Fitness Center, and seed money was provided through the budgetary process. The first year, a matted floor was purchased and placed in the basement of UFD headquarters, and we obtained a donated Universal Fitness machine as our main piece of equipment.

Since then, we have been able to build our fitness center into a state-of-the-art facility with treadmills, Stairmasters, free weights, strength machines, and other fitness equipment. Many of our volunteer firefighters and their families faithfully use the equipment. Over the past four years, we have grown our fitness center to include off-shoot branches for health, nutrition, and fitness.

The district supports the health and safety efforts of our men and women and actively encourages their participation in related events. Our members enter teams for Stair Climbing challenges and other charitable activities that combine good health with supporting other nonprofits. In fact, over the past few months the UFD has helped sponsor teams for Stair Climbs (February 2012), the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge (April 2012), and the Tough Mudder (May 2012). Our individual stations have also contributed financially to help with registration fees and team t-shirts.

As a Chief Officer, I believe in leading by example. It is with that in mind that I frequently lead our volunteers into these health and safety competitions. The first year we competed in the Stair Climb, the team consisted of just one individual. Since then participation has grown steadily each year. We recently took the effort to the next level by taking on the Tough Mudder – which proudly markets itself as “probably the toughest event on the planet.” This 10+-mile obstacle course is designed to test your strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie.

I quickly realized that competing in the Tough Mudder meant serious training to prepare our team. The members of the UFD Tough Mudder Team prepared to do battle by challenging themselves beyond their limits to get into Tough Mudder shape. Some worked out extremely hard 5-6 times per week in preparation. We are so proud of their commitment, dedication, and stamina. They have improved their health and safety while at the same time building a bond even stronger than the bond of brotherhood that normally exists within the fire service. Our district as well as our entire community can reap the rewards from this endeavor.

I, too, participated in the Tough Mudder challenge. However, I did not nearly come close to preparing the way our team did. Tough Mudder proved to indeed be a challenge for me. We were all psyched to compete and ready to go for our event in May. I was a bit nervous and set two goals:  1) to survive and return safety to my family; and 2) to finish the Tough Mudder. I am so proud of the fact that I am able to write this blog, noting that I met my first goal. I did survive. And almost as important was that I finished the Tough Mudder, although not exactly the way I had intended.

The UFD Team took just over three hours to complete the course. We all started out at 9:20 am, over the first wall (even before the start of the course, you were required to hoist yourself and the team over) with much enthusiasm and spirit. We then “raced” up Mt. Snow in Vermont. At the top of the first leg (and there were so many legs to this course), the UFD Team awaited their Chief. I would venture that they waited on that plateau for approximately 17 minutes. Mind you, I do have 30+ years on most of the other team members. Needless to say, that was the last time I saw the team until I crossed the finish line. Unfortunately, halfway through the course I injured my knee and ended up having to limp the rest of the way!

The Tough Mudder was fun and grueling for me. I want to thank Tim Amidon, the lone non-UFD member to join our team. Tim is from the Westerly FD, approximately 22 miles from the UFD. I call this the Ultimate Mutual Aid. Tim stayed with me the entire race, even after my injury. He easily could have finished the Tough Mudder within the three-hour mark. But with the true spirit of the fire service brotherhood, he chose to stay with the Chief every step of the way. Tim would take the lead and go up a mountain, maybe 50-75 yards, and anticipate that I would need to catch up and take a quick break. His assistance in gauging the trek and providing water (Tim carried a water camel) were most valuable.

Perhaps the best asset was his ability to anticipate our next moves. The Tough Mudder is a team event, and many of the obstacles require helping hands. Tim would scout out another team to assist us when we required help in overcoming certain obstacles. He would approach some of the strongest, largest team members and he probably said something like this:  “Listen, I have my elderly Chief with me. Can we join you and ask for your assistance in getting him over this 12-foot wall?”

Needless to say, thank you Tim for your ultimate mutual aid. I am forever indebted to you, and words cannot express my sincere appreciation to you for giving so much that day. I also want to express my sincere appreciation to ALL of the UFD Team members for their support and the support of their families. It meant so much to me that you shared in the success of my completion of the Tough Mudder. 7 hours and 8 minutes after the start, Tim and I completed the “race,” but we made it! As a side note, it took me 51 hours in recovery time. I put my body to a test and have rebounded with much pride and success.

Forming a Health and Safety Committee will forge any fire department into great initiatives and the development of a more fit fire crew. Our UFD Fire Fit Team is a prime example of men and women moving to a more improved healthy lifestyle. I know our citizens are better protected due to our members’ diligence, change in nutritional habits, and general healthy choices. Once again, I want to thank our leadership and our volunteers for all they do. We balance so many challenges in our life, yet our volunteers shine and are always at the ready. I feel blessed!