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Better Health is Within Reach

Better Health is Within Reach

Wednesday, 01 September 2010

Various programs and tools exist to help fire- and emergency-service personnel fend off heart disease.

Reprinted from FireChief.com and August issue of Fire Chief Magazine

By Heather Schafer, NVFC Executive Director

Firefighters face many dangers and hazards as part of the job, but each year heart attacks claim more lives in the line of duty than any other cause. For each first responder who dies, there are hundreds more who suffer from heart disease or have risk factors that may one day result in heart disease.

This may not be surprising given that heart disease is the No. 1 one killer in the United States. Unlike most Americans, however, first responders routinely have additional stress placed on their hearts due to the nature of their jobs. A 2007 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that the risk of death from coronary heart disease associated with emergency firefighter duties was markedly higher compared with non-emergency duties. Fire suppression was the riskiest duty, from 10 to 100 times higher than non-emergency duties.

In addition to the added stress of emergency response, many first responders don't take proper care of their health. Unhealthy eating and fitness habits, general stress from juggling the fire service, family and — often — another job, an inability to keep up with routine doctor visits and health screenings, and other factors all can contribute to an increased risk of heart disease.

It is critical that firefighters are prepared physically and mentally for their duties and all that comes with being a first responder. To that end, the National Volunteer Fire Council created the Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program in 2003 to raise awareness within the fire and emergency services about the dangers of heart disease and to provide tools and resources to first responders to help them begin and maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle. Now in its eighth year, the program has grown to encompass a wide range of initiatives to improve the health of emergency personnel.

Coming to an Expo Near You

One of the cornerstone components of the program are the health screenings given to first responders that monitor heart-disease risk factors such as cholesterol and glucose levels, blood pressure and body composition.

To date, the program has conducted screenings at more than 40 national and state fire service trade shows and conferences, with several more planned in 2010 and 2011. More than 14,000 people have received screenings to date.

Providing free health screenings at trade shows gets first responders thinking about their potential heart-disease risk factors and makes them aware that regular screenings are an important part of staying healthy. Screeners have seen many cases where someone didn't know that their cholesterol or blood pressure was high, and the results of the screenings let them know they need to see their doctor and get a plan in action for lowering their numbers.

While national outreach efforts help alert first responders of the resources available through the program, a key success factor concerns motivating these individuals to actually use the tools and make healthy changes to their lifestyles. Consequently, the NVFC encourages departments to adopt the program at the local level to provide the necessary motivation.

Departments can go to www.healthy-firefighter.org/atp to register to adopt the program within their department and have their members take a pledge to focus on their health and wellness. Program participants then can access tools and resources to help create a successful department-wide health and wellness program, and connect with other health-conscious first responders through an interactive message board.

Since the initiative began in 2007, almost 600 local departments have registered and made the commitment to improve the health of their members.

A Worthy Undertaking

The NVFC introduced the Fired Up for Fitness Challenge as a motivational fitness tracking tool to get first responders to increase their activity levels. The challenge is to reach certain fitness goals over the course of a year. As participants reach these goals within the allotted time frame, they receive incentive rewards to recognize their achievements. Departments also can use the challenge as a way of encouraging friendly competition among their personnel, to provide additional motivation for getting fit.

Ty Drage of Loveland (Colo.) Fire & Rescue decided to take the challenge because he recently had transferred from fire prevention to a truck company and wanted to bring his fitness level up a notch in order to feel prepared for the physical challenges of truck work.

"I signed up for the challenge because I get motivated by seeing my accomplishments written down," he said. "I'd been working on improving my personal fitness level and I hadn't been meeting with much success. By documenting what I was doing, I was able to keep up my motivation to continue."

Drage earned the most points of any challenge participant in 2009, logging in just under 1,000 activity hours. He now exercises regularly and feels much better overall. He even completed his first triathlon last year.

"I hope that more fire departments across the country encourage their members to improve their physical-fitness levels," Drage said. "With the high numbers of health-related firefighter injuries every year, we definitely have an issue out there of firefighters in poor physical condition. As our fire chief says, 'Firefighters are vocational athletes.' As such, we owe it to ourselves and the communities we protect to be the best prepared, most physically fit emergency responders we can possibly be."

The NVFC has found that it takes an advocate within the department to make a health-and-wellness program a success and to motivate its members to adopt healthy behaviors. To assist departments in identifying and cultivating such advocates, the NVFC offers a free, two-day Health and Wellness Advocate Workshop to train first responders on how to become champions of health within their departments.

The workshop, which was piloted in 2008, teaches participants the keys to developing a sound health-and-wellness program for their departments. As of this writing, 56 first responders have completed the training. Twelve more workshops are scheduled in 2010 and 2011, in conjunction with state fire-service conferences across the country. First responders interested in becoming advocates can learn more at www.healthy-firefighter.org/workshops.

National Health Week

Recognizing the need to bring greater attention to a variety of health issues that impact firefighters and emergency personnel, the NVFC launched National Firefighter Health Week in 2007. Held annually in August, the event provides first responders with a dedicated time to focus on not just their heart health but also their overall well-being. Each day of the week is dedicated to a different health topic.

This year's event has the theme, "Only You Can Keep It Strong. Are You Up for the Challenge?" The idea is that first responders must take personal responsibility for their health and wellness, and make the commitment to keep their heart, mind and body strong. The daily focus topics are behavioral health, personal protective equipment, heart health, cancer, and nutrition and physical fitness.

The NVFC encourages all fire and emergency service departments to use National Firefighter Health Week to highlight the importance of critical health issues to their members. Organize activities for each day that bring attention to that day's topic, and motivate your members to take the steps towards becoming healthy and practicing good lifestyle choices all year long.

Tools, tips, resources and daily activity suggestions can be found at www.healthy-firefighter.org/healthweek.

Looking Ahead

As the needs of the fire service continue to expand, so does the scope of the program. The NVFC recently received a federal grant to develop a series of five health-related webinars, work with Fire Corps teams to distribute health-and-wellness information and resources to local departments, and create a Behavioral Health Workshop that will be presented at five state association conferences in its first year.

Still, the work continues. The U.S. Fire Administration's preliminary report of firefighter fatalities for 2009 indicates that 43 firefighters died from heart attacks while on-duty. While this is the lowest number of firefighter heart-attack deaths since 2002, any line-of-duty death is too many. There also are many first responders who are living with a serious or life-changing illness.

Heart health is a critical issue in the fire and emergency services, and many factors from good nutrition and fitness to stress management can have an impact on protecting first responders. First responders need to take responsibility for their health and make the changes needed to prevent becoming a statistic. Go to the Heart-Healthy Firefighter web site to find resources, view screening and workshop schedules, take the Fired Up For Fitness Challenge, and register to adopt the Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program within your department.

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