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Creating a Heart-Healthy Department: Q&A with Dan Kerrigan, East Whiteland Fire Department

Creating a Heart-Healthy Department: Q&A with Dan Kerrigan, East Whiteland Fire Department

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

We all know the dangers heart disease can present to firefighters and EMS personnel. Yet department leadership and health and wellness advocates can play a critical role in helping their personnel prevent or minimize their risk factors of heart-related illnesses. Department-wide health and wellness programs can encourage first responders to be at their best by increasing fitness and adopting heart-healthy lifestyles, which in turn will improve both their health and their performance as a firefighter or EMT.

The East Whiteland Fire Department, a combination department comprised of 50 firefighters and EMTs in Malvern, PA, is one department that has successfully integrated health and fitness into their training and culture. In honor of American Heart Month, we asked Dan Kerrigan, Assistant Fire Marshal/Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator of the East Whiteland Township Department of Codes and Life Safety, how his department was able to create a successful health and wellness program and advice he has for others looking to start or enhance a health and fitness program.

When and why did your department decide to make health a priority for its firefighters and EMS personnel?

I think we’ve always considered it a priority on some level. Implementing annual physicals was the initial task. That being said, having annual physicals without a focus on other aspects of health and wellness only takes you so far. A few years ago, I did some research on firefighter fitness as part of an Executive Fire Officer Program obligation, and we quickly came to realize what we were doing well and what we were lacking. It takes time to build a comprehensive program – we’re still addressing some aspects of it, but you have to start somewhere. We saw it as an important opportunity to build support, be progressive, and lead by example. It’s a departmental effort; it’s not about the individual.

What initiatives did the department implement to focus on health?

Beyond annual physicals, our primary focus was to set up a formal fitness program. Part of the process involved gauging interest and uncovering possible obstacles. Another element was to identify what type of program would work the best for us.

To do this, aside from researching other departments’ programs, we distributed a questionnaire to our department members. We also conducted a 12-week pilot study with select emergency services personnel using Russian kettlebells as the primary modality, in conjunction with local fitness professionals.

Once the results from the questionnaire and the pilot study were analyzed, we implemented a basic program at the station. For us, the data collected from the kettlebell study exceeded our expectations, so we started with that. After a break-in period, personnel were permitted to participate in other forms of exercise. Since then they have continued to come up with creative ways of participating in the training.

I believe a comprehensive health and wellness program incorporates four components: Medical, fitness and nutrition, behavioral health, and near miss reporting and training. Our next initiative, now that our fitness program is up and running, is to bring in Jeff Dill and the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance to present a program called Saving Those who Save Others. This is scheduled for April 2015. We’re excited to raise awareness among our own people that the mental effects of what we do and see are cumulative. We want to be better at taking care of ourselves. I’m also working with the folks at IAFC to re-energize the National Near Miss Reporting Program in an effort to reduce injuries and deaths among first responders. Lastly, at the county level, we’re exploring the possibility of hosting a Peer Fitness Trainer Certification Program at our new Public Safety Training Center in Chester County, PA. This is still at the proposal stage.

Did you find it difficult to incorporate fitness into your training activities? 

Not really. We’re lucky to have a great group of career and volunteer personnel that understand the importance of being fit for duty. The questionnaire allowed us to develop a program that required the training but also provided the tools and time on shift to get it done. Both the township and the volunteer fire company purchased equipment, and the members have taken it upon themselves to expand on the program.

The successes we’ve realized so far are due to the enthusiasm and participation of the members, and that’s the way it should be. It’s something for them to be proud of, and it has set a great example in our region. They did it. That’s all to their credit. 

Did you meet any resistance from personnel, and if so what did you do to overcome this?

We are unique in that although we operate as a combination department; two separate organizations still exist (municipal and volunteer). So there are always obstacles to overcome. For the most part, the career personnel embraced it. The volunteers have as well, although there were some that might have been a bit slower to come around.

As time progresses, we continue to see increasing participation at all levels. Whether it’s because it’s required, it’s personal motivation, or it’s peer pressure, as long as they are doing something, we’re happy. Eventually, the members see and feel for themselves the positive effects of proper fitness, then it becomes engrained in the culture of the department. 

What other challenges or obstacles (ie, funding, time, etc.) did you face when implementing your health and wellness initiatives, and how did you address these?

Because we participated in some cost sharing, we’ve been lucky to avoid financial challenges thus far. In fact, we’re nearing completion of a new fire station, and a lot of emphasis was placed on designing a space that was adequate for fitness training. We’ve also applied for and received grants, as in the case of the upcoming behavioral health training.

Allowing our career personnel to work out while on duty eliminates most of the time issues and gives us assurance that they are regularly participating. We view it as a job requirement, not an option. In some ways, some of the younger volunteers look up to the career personnel as well, so there is a “leading by example” component that motivates others.

What impacts have your health initiatives had on the wellbeing and performance of the firefighters and EMTs in your department?

When one person does it, another will, when two do it, two more will, and so on. When I walk in to the station, it’s rare not to see someone working out. In the end, it’s contagious, both in attitude and in action. I’m often contacted to collaborate on new training circuits being developed by our personnel, and to their credit, they do most of that work themselves. I think what’s most gratifying is that the proof has been seen on the fireground through increased work capacity, reduced recovery time, and resiliency. I also believe it has a positive impact on injury reduction, but we’re still gathering data on that.

Your department has incorporated fitness circuits into your training activities. Can you explain more about that? 

Our members have created special fitness challenge circuits that combine or mimic typical firefighting tasks performed at emergency scenes with an added emphasis on physical fitness. To date, we have released a Fitness Challenge Layout in honor of the 2014 International Fire/EMS Safety and Health Week, and an October Fitness Challenge Circuit.

The important thing to stress is that personnel train for their roles. Firefighter fitness is about training that helps us to improve our capabilities on the incident scene, so anything that builds capacity, flexibility, overhead and leg strength, resiliency, and reduces recovery time is a benefit. Personally, I prefer kettlebells because they are an inexpensive yet incredibly effective way to mimic many tasks we do on the fireground, but there are other options as well. The point is, “train like you fight” applies to fitness training as much as it does skills development.

What advice do you have for other departments wanting to establish a health and wellness program for their personnel?

A good starting point is implementing annual physicals that are appropriate for firefighters. This does not mean obtaining a doctor’s note from everyone’s private physician. In my mind, it means an NFPA compliant examination. We’re all familiar with the various heroism award programs that recognize courage in our profession. I think that’s a good thing, but I also think that the fire chief that is willing to require annual physicals that could identify underlying medical conditions before it’s too late – to save the life of a firefighter so that they can continue to do their job –there’s a true hero as well.

Another part of establishing a quality program is paying attention to what potential pushback you might encounter and having strategies to deal with it. In the end, I can’t think of a valid excuse for avoiding the importance of firefighter health and wellness, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges. Once you identify your challenges, you can properly address the solutions internally, by researching what other departments have done, or both.

Attitude is key. We work in one of the most physically and mentally demanding professions that exists, yet there is no common requirement for fitness. It’s up to each department to recognize that physical and mental fitness is a requirement of the job and to promote it from the top down and the bottom up.

Anything else you would like to add?

We all know that around half of the line-of-duty deaths in a given year are attributed to personal health and wellness. To me, this is the elephant in the room. Until we unite as a profession and attack this problem on a national level, that statistic is not likely to change.

Like I said before, it is contagious – it just takes someone to step up and get something started, but you have to start somewhere. Why not start by recognizing that the health and wellness of your members affects not only themselves, but also their co-workers, families, and their community?  It requires strong support from leadership for sure, but I think you have to find a champion in your department as well. In our case, we saw the value of using our own personnel to promote and advance the program. Having personnel in-house to train others and develop firefighter-specific workouts engages the members directly in the successes of the department and reduces long-term costs as well. I believe that there is someone in every organization that is willing to take it on, as long as they have the support.