Health, fitness, and wellness receive a lot of attention in the fire service these days. These terms are used somewhat interchangeably, but most people think of fitness as physical fitness (exercise), whereas health and wellness are perceived as more comprehensive terms encompassing medical, emotional, mental, and even spiritual components that make up a person. A dictionary defines fitness as health; health as the general condition of body or mind with reference to soundness and vigor; and wellness as the quality or state of being healthy especially as a result of deliberate effort; health. I will use these terms interchangeably to describe a program designed to meet the comprehensive needs of firefighters. My focus, however, is not to design and build an effective program but to determine who is qualified to assume the responsibility of a heath/fitness/wellness director.


The Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness-Fitness Initi-ative, designed by representatives of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and 10 major fire departments, provides a model that could be successful if administered effectively. Who are you going to choose to take on such a responsibility? More importantly, what type of person(s) would most effectively motivate and educate your department members to improve their wellness?

Regardless of your department’s size, key players should include the chief of the department. If there is no buy-in at the top, the chances for a successful program are very limited. This does not mean, however, that the chief has to initiate the process. In fact, the program may stand a better chance of succeeding if it is developed from the bottom up.

In Sacramento, our program began in 1989 through a combination of progressive leadership and on-line firefighters wanting resources to improve their physical fitness. The program began at the Recruit Academy with the hiring of Al Baeta or “Coach,” as we have affectionately known him for 11 years. Having a professional physical educator at 0700 hours every morning of the academy for physical training (PT) produced immediate benefits including improved injury prevention and care, improved fitness development, and bona fide physical education for the recruits. Most important, however, was the emphasis on and development of positive health and fitness habits the recruits could carry with them throughout their firefighting careers and beyond.

Baeta developed our motto “Fit for Fire, Fit for Life” in 1989. The program quickly grew from a part-time commitment at the academy to a comprehensive program for all members. The program for on-line firefighters is voluntary, but participation is high.

Baeta was an outsider with no fire service background and met a lot of resistance from crusty old personnel at times, but his open-door style, enthusiasm, and warmth eventually melted away those barriers and many unwanted pounds. The Sacramento Fire Department was fortunate to have found such a program architect and wise enough to invest in employing his services. Baeta retired in December 2000 at age 67 and helped the department hire a new fitness director. He strongly believed that firefighters should make the final choice of the individual they felt could effectively run their program.

From a group of very qualified candidates, firefighters selected 26-year-old Kevin Hughes, who has many of Baeta’s personality traits.


Whether your department looks from within the organization or goes to an outside source, there must be fundamental guidelines for developing appropriate qualifications. First, assess your department’s overall needs, and prioritize them, starting with the issues that directly benefit firefighters. For example, it might be a mistake to assume that an expert on weight training is a top priority. Examine the fitness/wellness issues that most immediately impact your members positively or negatively. Cardiac health will be a top priority in many departments because of the seriousness of a cardiac incident and its role in fire service deaths. Back and shoulder injuries may also be a high priority because of their frequency, the impact they have on the employee, and the associated costs to the employer.

A representative set of wellness issues for many departments, regardless of size and location, include cardiac health, musculoskeletal injuries (e.g., back, shoulder, knee), nutrition/diet, strength development/maintenance, stress management, sleep management, diversity training, and conflict resolution. Your list may look a little different, but this list is a useful starting point for discussion. Assemble a committee, develop your list, and then prioritize the topics. You now have a foundation on which to develop an action plan.


Before developing a job description, investigate the resources you may already have that can address many of your “wish list” topics. For example, your health care provider may support your need for stress management, or you may have other support services that simply need to be uncovered and repackaged for your department as an awareness campaign. Your committee can do this, or that could be part of the responsibilities of your candidate. Because of the breadth of wellness-related topics, your job description cannot ask one individual to be personally responsible for solving all the wellness issues for the department.

Develop a mission statement for your new program; follow it with program goals and objectives that support the mission statement. This process, combined with existing services, will enable you to more accurately articulate to candidates what you do and do not expect from them. This will more clearly bring to light the level of commitment (hours) you are asking and, consequently, the compensation your department may need to commit to accomplish the mission. This goes back to my earlier statement that the department chief must be involved and must support your desire to better serve the members. After developing the job description, go to your department leaders for funding; they, in turn, may have to go to other local government leaders and agencies, including risk management, to fulfill your request.


A resume that matches the job description is the first big step in developing a qualified candidates list. The next challenge is to determine which person(s) will have the greatest ability to positively influence the most members of your department. Professional qualifications combined with effective personality traits are paramount to gain acceptance and therefore success with the troops. For example, the overly aggressive personality (“I’ll have them all running and lifting weights in one month”) is destined to fail with most members. Conversely, the individual who just provides office hours and a phone number, hoping someone might come by, is probably not going to affect many people either.

This is exactly why Baeta put the final decision of who should be chosen from a list of qualified candidates in our firefighters’ hands. In the final interview process, we put the candidates through various scenarios that Baeta had developed based on actual incidents to see how well they could respond. The results were very telling about each candidate’s style and effectiveness in a difficult situation. If you decide to incorporate a creative approach such as this, I would only caution you not to focus on “the most difficult firefighter”-type scenario, since there are some members of our profession who will never do anything positive in the area of wellness/fitness. Don’t make it impossible for the candidate to succeed! The following represents some of the personal and professional qualities/qualifications you may want to consider.


  • Minimum four-year degree in a health-related field (exercise physiology, health science, biomechanics, nutrition, other health/fitness related fields).
  • Teaching/coaching experience (e.g., team sports, personal training, classroom, counseling).
  • Business experience (ability to develop and manage a budget).
  • Computer skills (word processing and database capabilities).
  • Professional firefighting experience, if possible.


  • Follows standard health and fitness practices (firefighters are doers and expect the same of a health/wellness director).
  • Leadership traits (earns the respect of the members).
  • Personable (easy to approach if a member needs help).
  • Versatile (effective communicator with a diverse population).
  • Interested in and empathetic toward fire service demands and issues (shows a keen interest in us and what we do).
  • Enthusiastic (positive energy is contagious if managed effectively).


Whether your department has a staff of 30 or 3,000, there are creative ways to accomplish the objectives necessary in selecting a fitness/wellness leader to design and administer an effective program. Begin with a local college intern program or a part-time contract if you are a smaller department. If your department numbers in the hundreds, propose a full-time position devoted to the program. Funding may come from your department, a health-care provider, another segment of your government structure, grant programs, or possibly private funding.

Funding for the Sacramento Fire Department began through a local community college in exchange for enrollment in the college, Even-tually, it was transferred to the city government, where we share our current program funding source with the risk management department. We are still lobbying to have this position elevated to a full-time staff position, and there has been significant evidence over the past 11 years to suggest that our program as developed by Baeta has substantially reduced health-related costs to the city. Nevertheless, some city leaders are slow to react. Have a game plan in place to deal with adversity.


Going from concept to reality involves commitment and tenacity from concerned members of your department. Unfortunately, for many departments, fitness/wellness program development often is a reaction to a tragic event involving members. If a death or severe injury occurs during a fire or other emergency, we are usually quick to look at purchasing new equipment and implementing new (or old) policies and procedures to prevent future losses.

However, when one of our own perishes suddenly from a heart attack, we still grieve for our lost member, but we will quietly discuss the “if only” scenarios: “If only he had taken better care of himself. If only she had eaten better or gone for a walk every day.”

Today is a great day to start the process described above. Below is a list of major events you or your committee can undertake to hire a person to lead your department toward better health and fitness.

  1. Form a committee.
  2. Involve and inform the department chief of your activities and goals.
  3. Develop a list of wellness-related issues, and prioritize.
  4. Design a mission statement, and list goals and objectives.
  5. Examine resources currently available.
  6. Develop a job description.
  7. Examine all possible funding sources.
  8. Develop a proposal for management (involve management and the local union in this process).
  9. On proposal approval, begin the search from within or outside the department.
  10. Hire and assist this person(s) in accomplishing the mission.

SHAWN PERRY is a captain and assistant fitness director for the Sacramento City (CA) Fire Department, where he has served for 10 years. He received a B.S. in exercise physiology from San Jose (CA) State University and an M.S. from the University of Illinois at Champaign. He is drill master for the Sacramento Regional Fire Academy.

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