Being a better firefighter starts with being your best from a health and wellness standpoint; here are the first three rules that will get you there
By Rick Markley
There’s more than a grain of truth in the cliché that you can’t help others until you can help yourself. And in firefighting, that can seem a lot easier to do when you are part of a career department versus volunteer or paid on-call departments.
We simply don’t always have the same level of resources at our disposal as do our career sisters and brothers. Fancy workout rooms, employee assistance programs and the like are rarely found in the volunteer firehouse. Yet, we face the same health and wellness issues — we just have to find ways to cope with less direct assistance.
Dr. Sara Jahnke recently laid out her top nine things to do to improve your overall health and wellness — and ultimately your ability to be a good firefighter. Jahnke is director of the National Development and Research Institute’s Center for Fire, Rescue, and EMS Health Research. She presented her top nine at the “What’s Killing Us” one-day seminar on firefighter health and wellness hosted by the Loveland Symmes (Ohio) Firefighters Department.
The beautiful thing about Jahnke’s list is they don’t require big budgets or fire chief approval. They can all be done with little more than good planning and good discipline — and those actions, once made into habit, can have a positive influence on other firefighters. So, here’s here are the first three of her top nine. Parts 2 and 3 will detail the remaining six steps to wellness.
Stop using tobacco products. There’s really no debate left here. The science is irrefutable. Using tobacco is bad for every system of your body. It is very likely to be a primary or supporting factor in the illness that kills you. And the respiratory and cardiovascular diseases it is so often linked to, will make life miserable before it kills you.
In a 2011 study Jahnke coauthored, researchers found that 17.4% of volunteer firefighters smoke (13.6% for career), while 16.8% use smokeless tobacco (18.4% for career) The national smoking rate among men at that time was 23.4%; the national average for men who use smokeless tobacco was 7%. Of the volunteers who did smoke, they reported an average of 15.2 cigarettes per day (only 10 per day for career). While those numbers were below comparable male-dominated professions like the military, smokers were more likely to have anxiety disorders and a drinking problem when compared to those who never smoked.
According to the CDC, for every person who dies because of smoking, at least 30 people live with a serious smoking-related illness. Smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking also increases risk for tuberculosis, certain eye diseases, and problems of the immune system, including rheumatoid arthritis.
And those illnesses smoking causes fall in line with firefighters’ occupational health risks. That, or course, means that smoking and being a firefighter compounds the risk of contracting a life-ending illness such as cancer or cardiovascular disease.
Prioritize sleep. Easier said than done, right? The fire service is about as anti-sleep as you can get. Career firefighters are probably woken more frequently than are volunteer and part-time firefighters due to higher call volumes. But when a career firefighter’s shift ends, it ends. When volunteers get off work from their jobs, their on-call fire shifts begin. In addition to being toned out at 2 a.m., things like caffeine use and fire service-related stressors contribute to poor sleep quality.
Like tobacco use, the science is pretty clear on sleep. Sleep is a big deal with both short-term and long-term consequences. Poor sleep equals poorer health, poorer performance and a shorter life span. Poor sleep has been linked to increased risks of obesity, kidney disease, heart disease, diabetes, dementia and stroke. And, when sleep-deprived individuals are tested for mental clarity and physical abilities (like operating a vehicle), they performed similar to those impaired by alcohol. Driving drowsy is like driving drunk.
Jahnke highly recommends the book “Why we Sleep” by Matthew Walker to help firefighters fully understand the importance of sleep. There is plenty of solid advice out there for improving sleep. Harvard offers these 12 tips, and Mayo Clinic winnowed it down to six tips.
Connect with people. The negative effects of post-traumatic stress, be it cumulative or event-based, on firefighters is only made worse when firefighters isolate themselves. An article out of Tulane University connects isolation with increased risk of serious physical ailments such as dementia and coronary heart disease and stroke.
The ultimate risk here is that an isolated firefighter is more likely to develop mental health problems and end her or his own life. Unlike line-of-duty deaths, there are no requirements to report firefighter suicide deaths. Many experts, such as those at the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, say that firefighter suicides are under-reported by as much 60%. Firefighter suicide is most likely a bigger problem than we suspect, and isolation is a contributing factor.
Jahnke said having personal connections helps keep firefighter’s mental health in check; it helps build mental resiliency and growth after traumatic events.
One volunteer fire department found an unexpected, simple way to build connection. One day a member laid out an unbuilt jigsaw puzzle on a table. Volunteers found themselves sitting, often quietly, after calls and working on the puzzle together. After several months of this practice, the volunteer firefighters reported that they found a sense of peace in doing something together that had zero stressors attached to it.
When firefighters need more help than they can get from family, friends and coworkers, the National Volunteer Fire Council’s Share the Load program has a collection of resources, including a list of mental healthcare providers trained to address the unique issues firefighters and emergency responders face.
Read Part 2 here.