Firefighter health and wellness—both physical and behavioral—is receiving an increasing amount of attention. Although the focus is an important effort, it also is overwhelming when one thinks of the huge range of changes that can or should be made to improve one’s health. In addition, although decreasing fireground exposures through gear cleaning, wiping down after an incident and limiting spread of carcinogens is important, we now know that true cancer-reduction measures must focus not just on what happens on the fireground but also on health behaviors off of the fireground.
Several groups focus on the motto of doing 1 percent better every day, with the realization that lasting change isn’t swift and isn’t the result of making huge changes in every part of one’s life all at once. The O2X program outlines the need for small, consistent improvement by pointing out that the sheer stress of implementing a broad range of changes at one time leads to frustration and a sense of being overwhelmed, which in turn leads to quitting before a goal is achieved.
At the end of the day, what is a firefighter to do, and what should be the focus beyond the fireground behaviors? Here are my top 8.
Don’t use tobacco
Fortunately, cigarette use in the fire service is extremely low compared with the past, the general population, and the military and similar groups. Unfortunately, smokeless tobacco use is high—higher than the general population and most other occupational groups. Although many argue that smokeless tobacco is less dangerous that smoking, it still contains carcinogens and increases risk of several cancers.
Prioritize your sleep
We all know that being up in the middle of the night is part of the job. However, sleep and circadian rhythms control all of the processes in the body, and years of interrupting that natural rhythm takes a toll. Although getting a full night’s sleep every night isn’t possible for most first responders, prioritizing the sleep that you can get is key to improving health.
Connect with people on the job, with family, with friends, with people who “get you” and be honest with them about—gasp—feelings. Resilience largely depends on one’s ability to connect with others and be supported by them and being a support for them. We aren’t designed to handle life alone.
Eat things you recognize
There is a lot of advice out there about nutrition: what you should eat, and what you shouldn’t. One day eggs make headlines for being a miracle food, and the next the headline is that if you ever even think of an egg, you will die a decade early.
One piece of advice that seems to stand the test of time is to eat foods that you recognize, such as whole foods that don’t come with a label. Fruits and vegetables are your friends. If you can’t pronounce what’s on the label on the first try, skip to another option.
Move more and better
The best kind of workout is the one that you will do. Move more and pay attention to how you move. More movements with bad form are a recipe for injury. Functional fitness also seems to be the key to success for firefighters. Train like you will be required to work.
Rethink the way you drink
Binge drinking is bad for your health and can lead to a number of health challenges.
In fact, when firefighters drink, they consume 3.5 drinks on average at a time. That’s the exact same amount that increases risk for several types of cancer. Pay attention to how much alcohol you drink.
Use peer pressure
Use the positive peer pressure of your crew or department to define what being a healthy firefighter is and looks like. Work out together, talk about your food choices at dinner, then make better ones. Healthy behaviors are contagious.
Realize that this stuff doesn’t change overnight. You don’t have to make all of the changes at once. The fact that you read to this article’s end says something about you and where your head is on this issue. Be proud of that. What can you do that makes a 1 percent improvement in one of the things on the list today? What are you already doing well on? Where do you have a lot of room to improve?