Article Archive
EMS Corner
Wellness Vs. Benefits for Firefighters
Vol 20 No 4

When it comes to wellness, many benefit packages will only cover illness and treatment. What that means is that you have to be sick in order for you to access any of the many 'benefits' that are provided under your very expensive company major medical plan. I always thought it was odd, that an insurance company would pay for years of treatment for emphysema and coronary artery disease brought on by smoking, but would not spend a dime to help smokers break the habit with anti smoking classes and other materials designed to help them "get the monkey off their back." It seems to me, that a few dollars spent 'up-front', could save millions in the long run. Now I have had the economic lectures, I understand money now, money then, and the bottom line. I get all of that. Regardless, we are talking about overall wellness here and something just does not smell right, irrespective of the damn bottom line.

Firefighters have been dying and having occupational problems from cardiac and pulmonary issues since there were firemen, but the days of the "smoke-eaters" are long gone and many strides have been made in the effort to protect the brave brothers and sisters on the frontlines. Breathing apparatus, protective equipment, and even operational protocols have been developed and all have helped to save lives, but still, we continue to lose firefighters to heart attacks on the scene. The National Volunteer Fire Council states that, "Firefighters are at an extremely high risk of suffering heart attacks or other forms of heart disease. In fact, half of all firefighter deaths in the field are heart-related today. And the reason? The strenuous task of fire fighting places heavy demands on firefighters' bodies, which, in many cases, are not physically prepared for the strain." Obviously, something more must be done.

Well, who are these people? The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) is a non-profit membership association representing the interests of the volunteer fire, EMS and rescue services. The NVFC provides a voice for the fire service community and is the information source for the emergency services. NVFC's membership includes state-level organizations that represent volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel in 49 states, individual firefighters, fire departments and corporate members. That being said, they also have apparently really done their homework. Quoting a Texas A& M study they state, "The very nature of firefighting as a profession is [characterized by] lengthy bouts of sedentary activity, separated by intense periods of very strenuous activity. The cardiovascular system of a firefighter is often pushed to the limit when responding to calls. We all know about this concept of waiting for the alarm. Down time can be one of the killers of the job and this 'sedentary' nature of the job contributes to poor physical condition. Honestly, how many of you keep yourselves in "top physical condition"? How many of you hit the weight room or treadmill that your department provides and you lobbied so hard to get, rather than opt for the lazy-boy and the remote control? Then, when the bell does ring, its go like gangbusters for who knows how long and for how hard. The NVFC states, "Too many departments are lax about requiring their firefighters to stay in top physical condition. Add to this the 800,000 volunteer firefighters across the country - most of whom have other jobs that are far less physically demanding than fire fighting - and the magnitude of the challenge becomes even clearer."

Now this is a huge problem in firefighter deaths in the line of duty. No longer are the major problems mainly associated with smoke, building collapse, tank rupture, or other catastrophes. Oh yes, those are still there, those will always be inherent with the business, kind of goes with the turf. Now we are talking about the stress that work places on the bodies of the brothers and sisters and that also will not go away. But this is one we can fight and this is one we can at least beat back to at least the acceptable minimums as we have done with many of the other risks that "come with the turf". We may not be able to make it totally disappear until they develop a cure for heart disease, but we can try and keep it in check. Now starts the war in the fire service against duty deaths due to heart attacks!

The approach the NVFC is taking is simple. Assess for risk, treat unchecked high cholesterol and hypertension, and make necessary changes to lifestyle, diet, and exercise plans. Sounds simple enough, but when was the last time you went to the doctor for a routine work-up? Probably not in the recent past and how many of you are over twenty pounds beyond your ideal or "fire fighting weight". Are you short of breath on that third flight of stairs? Is your serum blood cholesterol too high? How about your LDL or low density lipo-proteins? Are they too high? Are your HDLs (high density lipo-proteins) too low? When was the last time you really had a full blood work-up done? Honestly, ask yourself, "Am I in peak physical condition?"

Well, now there is something you can do. You can get the Heart-Healthy Firefighter Kit from the NVFC direct or maybe at one of your local trade shows (I'm hoping they will be joining us in March in Baton Rouge). Contact them at on the web and get your heart healthy start. With almost half of all of the duty deaths now being attributed to heart related disease and cardiac arrest, its time for the firefighter community to step up to the plate and realize that the treadmill may have been the place to be after all, and save the lazy-boy and the remote for after the alarm. o

William R. Kerney, MA-EMTP-A is a professor of emergency medical services at the Community College of Southern Nevada.


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