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By Dan Kerrigan
The level of success that you achieve and maintain as a firefighter is personal. In fact, everything about your health and wellness is personal, whether you’re a firefighter or not. Health and wellness are important, regardless of one’s occupation. However, as a firefighter, they are critical.
Health and wellness play a direct role in your fireground performance, capabilities, and effectiveness. Moreover, many lives depend on your ability to perform appropriately. It is important to be fit for duty, yet this still remains a complex issue in the fire service. Decades of unchanging line-of-duty death statistics are proof that previously proposed solutions have fallen short.
As an individual, how can you help to change this trend? In this article, I will propose three core principles that will aid in your fitness success. By adopting these principles, you will start down the road to improving your health and the health of your colleagues.
To me, personal fitness success boils down to three simple A’s: Attitude, accountability, and action. Let’s examine each and discuss how they affect not only your personal fitness success, but the success of those around you as well.
What does your attitude say about you? Be honest with yourself. My perspective is that your attitude is the very first thing that you should address (even before you enter the fire service). Your attitude must include open-mindedness; a desire to serve and learn; and an unselfish, humble approach—all of which are qualities expected of public servants.
To be blunt, our craft is not for everyone. If you enter the fire service for the wrong reasons, or you fail to understand what it means to be counted on during the worst moments of someone’s life, then you will not develop the proper attitude toward your own health and fitness.
Developing a Proper Attitude
- Learn about the profession before you enter it. Understand what it truly takes to be an asset to those you will serve and to those with which you will work.
- Understand that being a firefighter comes with great responsibility. This is more than how much passion you have for the job. Most will say that they are passionate about the job, but how many consistently demonstrate this through their actions?
- Realize that the constant improvement of your knowledge, skills, and abilities is vital, but no amount of technical expertise will overcome a lack of personal health and fitness. If your health and fitness are lacking, you may initially be able to “get by” for a while. However, the truth is that it will catch up to you eventually.
- Accept that like most things worth doing, you must be “all-in.” This means placing as much emphasis on your own fitness as you do on the development of your skills.
What is personal accountability? I’m sure if I conducted a survey, I would get various answers to this question, and they would all be on-target. Whatever your definition of personal accountability is, it must contain one element: you own it.
- Learn what it means to own the decisions you make, both in life and in the fire service. It is much more than talk, and it goes beyond attitude. Everyone sets an example. It takes courage and character to set the right one.
- Understand that personal accountability is not a convenience, and that keeping yourself fit for duty is not something that can be accomplished solely when you “feel like it.” Commit to the concept and the reasons why your fitness is so important.
- Realize that being fit for duty must be a regular part of your life. Anything less than that can become a potential threat to your effectiveness.
- Accept that not every day can be the best day. Do not let an “off day” change your overall approach to your health and fitness—remember that it is one day in a lifetime. Everyone needs a break, so take one, and come back reenergized.
Without action, words are just those…words. Saying and doing is the difference between potential and kinetic energy. In the fire service, actions speak louder than words. It is incumbent on you to demonstrate your positive attitude and personal accountability, not just talk about them.
How do we put personal health and fitness into action? The first thing to remember is that the very foundation of exercise and fitness is movement. So, get off the couch! Rome wasn’t built in a day, and properly working toward being fit for duty will take time, too.
Following are some ideas to get you started:
- Get a physical. Even if your department does not provide them, get medically evaluated by an occupational physician that is familiar with NFPA 1582, Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments; carcinogen exposures; and the jobs firefighters do. Physicals save lives.
- Move. Even if you begin by taking brisk walks, get going.
- Exercise for function. Focus on the “Big 8”: push, pull, carry, lift, drag, core, cardiovascular capacity, and flexibility. Click here for an article that outlines firefighter functional fitness.
- Bodyweight exercises are highly effective. You do not need machines to get fit. Pullups, pushups, squats, dips, lunges, etc. are all good functional movements that do not require special equipment.
- Exercise when you are most motivated to do so. Is it early morning, lunchtime, or evenings? It does not matter when—the best time to exercise is when you want to exercise.
- Unable to get to the gym? Do 10 to 20 pushups and 10 to 20 bodyweight squats every hour on the hour throughout the day. You will amass 100 or more of each without taking up more than a few minutes at a time. No one is too busy for that.
- Avoid sugar-laden drinks as much as possible. Choose the bottle of water instead of the soda. My doctor once told me that I could potentially lose five pounds simply by cutting out sugary soft drinks.
- Eat lean proteins, healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables (especially broccoli and spinach). Mix in healthy carbohydrates when appropriate, but avoid making them the primary food that you consume.
- Pack healthy eating options. It is important to break bread with your fire service brothers and sisters, but we all know that firehouse meals can be unhealthy. Strive for a balanced approach by packing a healthy meal or two for your shifts. Who knows, you may even get others to see how a healthy approach to eating will help them too.
- Make small, incremental changes to your diet and your exercise programs. Doing so will prevent the “burnout syndrome.” Unfortunately, many diets fail because individuals do too much, too fast. Pace yourself with small changes until they eventually become healthy habits.
“Everything in moderation” is a good rule to live by. The fire service does not need to be full of Hulk Hogans and Arnold Schwarzeneggers. If your personal goals align with their fitness goals, great. However, what is really required is the best version of you. Fitness success is personal. It takes singular and unwavering commitment to attitude, personal accountability, and action to make it work.
Dan Kerrigan is a 28-year fire service veteran and an assistant fire marshal/deputy emergency management coordinator and department health and fitness coordinator for the East Whiteland Township Department of Codes and Life Safety in Chester County, Pennsylvania and the Director of The First Twenty’s Firefighter Functional Training Advisory Panel. Kerrigan is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master’s Degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership. He is a PA State Fire Academy Suppression Level Instructor as well as an adjunct professor at Anna Maria College, Neumann University, and Immaculata University. Connect with Kerrigan at firstname.lastname@example.org, on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @dankerrigan2. Follow The First Twenty on Twitter @thefirsttwenty.