Obesity in the Fire Service: A Tale of Two Camps of Firefighters

firefighters in gear

By Todd LeDuc

It has been reported that between 24 and 35 percent of firefighters in the United States were obese as measured by body mass index percentages. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)  has reported body composition rates in firefighters to be either overweight or obese at rates between 78 to 88 percent in the report “Addressing the Epidemic of Obesity in the United States Fire Service.”

One recently published study this past February in the American College of Cardiology journal looked at 656 firefighters over the course of a five-year period. Of the 656 firefighters, 67 were females and the remainder males. In this group of firefighters, over the five-year period in which they were studied, 50 percent of them gained more than three percent of their bodyweight during the course of that time. The other half of the firefighters either maintained their weight or lost weight during that same period.

The cardiovascular risks of these two groups could not be clearer. The group that gained significant weight had a high prevalence of high cholesterol and in particular LDL or lower density lipid, elevations of blood pressure, reliance on anti-hypertension medicals, and elevations in fasting glucose. In addition, the members’ 10-year cardiovascular event risk predictor was elevated as well. The group that maintained or lost weight did not reflect this same metabolic profile and in fact had reduced risk profile.

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Firefighters are increasingly being compared to “tactical athletes” due to the extreme rigors of the tasks they are expected to perform, and this raises the bar on the need to maintain our body in a state of readiness and managing our own health risk and performance. Auburn University Human Performance Laboratory was also able to demonstrate that overweight firefighters adversely affected their performance. A study in Montgomery, Alabama, found that: “added weight and body fat affected performance of firefighters on the fireground…there was a direct relationship between added body weight and decreased physical performance. Additionally, as body weight increased, efficiency decreased and fatigue set in faster.”

A case control study using NIOSH fatality data of firefighters 45 years or younger who suffered sudden cardiac death by Yang et al. published in 2014 found that 6 percent of these deaths occurred in obese firefighters. As we continue to find that left ventricular enlargement and underlying cardiovascular heart disease are prevalent among firefighter sudden deaths from cardiac, it is imperative that we tackle the behavioral modification necessary to manage our own modifiable health risk. This must be done through a combination of education, awareness, leadership and personal focus on functional fitness and human performance and mandatory annual early detection medical physicals aimed at human risk reduction!

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. LeDuc@lifescanwellness.com.

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