Commentary, Health & Safety

Firefighter Wellness and Self-Care in the Time of Pandemic

Firefighters put water on a burning home
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Fire Department

By Todd LeDuc

With the daily 24/7 new cycle broadcasting the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic across the United States and the globe, we are witness to first responders operating on the front lines of the crisis. While much guidance has been provided to first responders on personal protection, exposure mitigation, and post-exposure by national organizations such as the International Associations of Fire Chiefs and Firefighters and the Center for Disease Control, it is important to reflect on responder well-being and self-care as well during these unprecedented times.

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We have all heard about the need for frequent and thorough hand washing and that applies to first responders even more so. The stressors to first responders both physically and mentally are great during “normal” crises we encounter. They can be even greater during such widespread public health emergencies on top of the continued “all hazards” incidents.

Adequate rest and sleep are essential to feeling well both physically and emotionally. Added stress and distractions can be problematic for regular, healthy sleep. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and sugar prior to rest and maintaining a conducive environment for sleep free of electronics, if possible, and in a dark and cooler room. Nutrition and hydration also play an essential role in well-being. Avoid a diet that is high in “poor” fats, sugars, and unhealthy carbs and instead focus on one loaded with lots of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, and fiber, and include plenty of water throughout the day. Examples of foods to include are fatty fish, nuts, green leafy vegetables, and broccoli. A healthy diet leads to healthy gut, and gut health affects bacteria within your intestines and can impact overall health. Now more than ever incorporate some type of regular exercise, both aerobic and strength or resistance training. Consider additional exercise such as walking, yoga, or functional exercises that replicate firefighter tasks – all done in the age of social distancing.

Finding a place for “mindfulness” or unplugging for a specified block of time is essential, as time permits. Some call it “me” time but unplugging and focusing on relaxing or decompressing throughout the day is refreshing to both your mind and body. Add in something that you find enjoyable as well as stress relieving, even for brief interludes. This will yield large dividends reducing your physiological stress response. Numerous pieces of published research have shown that mindfulness and meditation practices can reduce anxiety as well as resting heart rate and blood pressure. Research trials have demonstrated that these techniques demonstrated moderate reductions in blood pressure and helped promote other healthy lifestyle habits. Keeping a journal and writing thoughts also can be a decompressing way to offload information.

Also, stay positive, knowing what can be controlled and what perhaps is beyond the power to control. The old adage that “negativity breads negativity” is true. If we remain positive in our outlook on a situation, the power of hope leads to beneficial effects both physically and mentally.

Develop these practices into habits so that you remain healthy and in control of your wellness, both physically and emotionally, as we navigate the first response to the current pandemic.

Todd J. LeDuc, MS, CFO, FIFirE, retired after nearly 30 years as assistant fire chief of Broward County, Florida, an internationally accredited career metro department. He served as chief strategy officer for Life Scan Wellness Centers, a national provider of comprehensive physicals and early detection exams. He has served as a member of the International Association of Fire Chief’s Safety, Health & Survival Section for over a decade and is currently secretary of the section. He is a peer reviewer for both professional credentialing and agency accreditation. He is editor of Surviving the Fire Service (Fire Engineering Books) and serves on numerous advisory boards and publications. He can  be contacted at Todd. [email protected]

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This commentary reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fire Engineering. It has not undergone Fire Engineering‘s peer-review process.