Imagine that you’re performing a routine daily task, such as completing an incident report. Then, all of a sudden, an extremely loud noise startles you and catches you off guard.
As a result, your heart rate increases, a bit of panic may set in and your blood pressure spikes.
This is the exact scenario that takes place every day — oftentimes more than once daily — in the life of a firefighter. This puts a firefighter’s health and wellness at risk.
In a firehouse, going from a relaxed state of mind and suddenly being thrust into an alarm response mode is definitely not healthy for one’s body and, while biological effects from incidents like these can’t be prevented, firefighters can take steps to better prepare their bodies for this type of shock.
Here are six ways to maintain firefighter health and wellness under extraordinary conditions:
1. Minimize Stress – Let’s face it. Being a firefighter is already stressful enough, so taking measures to minimize stress within the firehouse work environment is a good first step. A fire alarm going off full-volume at 140 decibels at four o’clock in the morning is not going to help minimize one’s stress level, so consider alternatives to the traditional siren, devices that are more advanced and feature alarms that gradually get louder and reduce the “startle response” effect. In addition to adding to stress, studies have shown that traditional fire alarms may have the effect of causing long-term damage to one’s hearing as well!
2. Stay Fit – Time and time again, research has revealed that a steady workout routine combining both aerobic exercises with weight training has tremendously positive benefits on one’s body. A firefighter must be in top shape to perform many of his/her search-and-rescue operations, so ensuring that a proper workout regimen is in place goes a long way in this regard. Many fire stations that aren’t already equipped with fitness facilities can improvise. Workouts could include using the fire trucks for step-ups, the fire hoses for dragging/stretching and creating an open space for pushups and squats.
3. Maintain Your Sanity – Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health, and being startled several times a day by loud sirens going off doesn’t bode well for one’s mental health. In addition to implementing more modern fire station alerting systems such as those that minimize firefighter stress by slowly increasing the alarm tone’s volume (from ‘off’ to ‘full volume’) over a longer amount of time, fire chiefs should also consider offering members an array of mental health programs if they aren’t currently in place. There are many non-profit organizations that offer printed materials and online videos at very little cost. They often contain a wealth of information about how firefighters, specifically, can better deal with and manage their mental health.
4. Eat Right – Depending on their location, firefighters might go days (or weeks) without responding to an emergency call. During this down time, they often spend their shifts sitting at a desk completing paperwork. It might be tempting to have a sausage pizza delivered, or take a drive to the fast-food restaurant down the street. Instead, pack a healthy lunch consisting of salad, fruits, proteins, and a moderate amount of carbohydrates and healthy fats. To optimize firefigther health and wellness, start slow and gradually try to make changes to your eating habits. Trying to do it overnight isn’t realistic or smart, and often leads to cheating or giving up entirely on the new diet.
5. Have Fun on the Job – A firefighter has a tremendous amount of duty and responsibility to bear. But that doesn’t mean the job can’t be fun at the same time. People who are happy at work are also more likely to be happy at home. When in the fire station, employ small tactics to bring humor into the workplace, such as emailing an appropriate ‘joke of the day’ or sharing a daily YouTube blooper clip with the team. To better bond with fellow firefighters, schedule a monthly game night. Finding a regular outlet for playing games with colleagues is a great stress reliever in addition to being fun!
6. Keep Learning – Learning new skills and improving your existing ones offers a sense of achievement, strengthens one’s confidence levels and helps optimize firefighter health and wellness. During the frequent downtime in between emergency call responses and performing other day-to-day tasks, firefighters should regularly exercise their brains by examining other departments’ best practices. Periodically arrange tours of other local department facilities to see what they are doing better than your department. Are they using a more modern alerting system that minimizes firefighter stress? Are their trucks kept in better condition than yours? Is the morale of their team stronger than yours? Onsite visits to other departments can give you the opportunity to learn how to properly benchmark against others and ultimately give you a take-away that will improve your own department’s practices and performance.
First responders in public safety face a level of stress unseen by the overwhelming majority of our population. As such, certain proactive measures such as those discussed above should be incorporated into a firefighter’s daily routine. Doing so will greatly reduce the chances of stress-related incidents occurring and go a long way toward improving firefighters’ health and wellness and day-to-day life experience.
With your firefighting team’s health and well-being in mind, make a list of the ways in which your firehouse helps promote physical and mental health, and the ways that you think they could be improved upon.
We would welcome your input on this all-important topic of firefighter health and wellness, so please do leave a suggestion or remark in the comments section below.