Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

Importance of healthy eating habits that must accompany exercise

July 2018
Joe Hempel

The bright lights come on, the bells are ringing, and the radio is blaring.  You have just been awoken from a dead sleep.  Your resting heart rate of 60 B.P.M. has now skyrocketed to 100 B.P.M. or more, and the adrenaline in your body is surging.  You scramble from your bunk and try to gather your thoughts and your breath, as you quickly get dressed and move toward the rig.  Within a minute, you are out the door and the sirens are screaming through the streets as you race to your next emergency.  A few minutes later, you find yourself in a dark, hot, smoky environment.  This is your job, and this is your life.

Without a doubt, firefighting is one of the most physically and mentally demanding occupations in the world.  Firefighters are under a considerable amount of stress and find themselves in situations that the average person is not equipped to handle.  The job requires a great deal of stamina, strength, and the ability to think, as well as function, under extreme circumstances.

To handle these demands on their bodies and minds, firefighters must take steps to insure they are ready to answer that bell.  Getting into the gym and working out on a regular basis helps to increase physical strength and stamina, cardiovascular health, as well as prevent injuries and strains to muscle groups, and helps to maintain a healthy weight.  Physical fitness has also been proven to lessen the effects of mental stresses on the body; stresses that most firefighters aren’t even aware of.

But there is another component needed to be in top physical condition for the job, and that is eating right. Firefighters and their departments need to make efforts to educate themselves on nutrition and how certain foods impact the body.  We are not talking about diets, rather lifestyle changes that are needed to withstand the rigors of the job and get firefighters to the ends of their careers and be healthy during retirement.

It’s a given fact that firefighting is inherently dangerous, as such, firefighters are going to be injured and sadly some will lose their lives. But even as these numbers have been on the decline over the past ten years, there is one area of firefighter fatalities that truly stands out amongst all others and that is death by stress or overexertion. This category includes all deaths by heart attacks, strokes, and extreme climatic thermal exposures.

The most recent report on firefighter deaths by the United States Fire Administration, shows that there were 89 firefighter fatalities in 2016, and of those deaths, 43 were attributed to stress or overexertion.  That’s a little more than 48 percent.   The ten-year average covering 2007 – 2016, shows 52.6 firefighter deaths per year, in this category which is 54.6 percent of all deaths reported.

So, the numbers speak for themselves and identify a great deal of concern. It is truly the one area whereby firefighters and their departments have the greatest ability to enact change.  It is an area where the overall number of fatalities can truly be impacted and reduced.  This is why it is so important to exercise and just as importantly, to eat right.

When it comes to down to working out, there are host of arguments and discussions on both sides of the topic.  Some involve whether or not the department should provide the workout facilities and equipment or whether it is the individual firefighter’s responsibility to maintain his or her physical condition off duty.  These discussions lead into what happens if I am injured while working out in the gym?  Who is going to pay for it? Am I going to be compensated for injuries on and off duty?  There are other arguments for and against mandatory fitness requirements that can lead to struggles between management and unions.  All of these and others might be reasons why more firefighters just are not staying physically fit.  But, these obstacles to fitness need to be addressed and they need to be worked out if we are ever going to reduce the number of firefighter fatalities in this country.

However, when it comes to eating?  That’s a personal choice and one every firefighter is in control of.  Nobody can tell you what to eat, how much to eat, or when to eat.  These are decisions you must make on your own, and they should be made with your job and your health in mind.  If your company is not eating healthy, make an effort to change the mindset or the menu by educating yourself and others on proper nutrition.  You can spend hours in the gym and still put on weight if you are eating too much or too much of the wrong foods.  Getting the weight off, and keeping it off, is the goal so we aren’t talking about fad diets or starving ourselves here.  We are talking about eating the right foods for life and making good choices for ourselves. Just losing 10 pounds and keeping it off truly impacts your level of cardiovascular health, your blood pressure, your cholesterol, and your chances of developing diabetes and some cancers.

Eating right starts with knowing what it is you are eating.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that all foods be labeled with all nutrition information. But do you really know what to do with it?  There is a wealth of free information on the Internet that makes this topic truly easy to understand.  Web sites like offer pages of nutrition information, such as the recommended daily intake requirements for men and women according to height, weight, and age. These are further broken down to show the amount of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats that are needed for healthy living.  You need to learn what is too much sodium, too much fat, and too much sugar and how they impact the body.

We all know that eating donuts in the morning isn’t a healthy option. They are loaded with sugars, fats, and high calories, but we still eat them.  Why?  The easy answers are because they taste good, they are conveniently left for us in the kitchen, or “I only had one.”  The hard answers are we didn’t plan for our day, and we really just do not know how bad they are for us. It’s all about education and it’s all about you.  Think about how fast you can eat a donut and then read about the nutritional value of a single donut and realize how much of our daily requirements are taken up.  Then look at the calories of a donut and research how much exercise it takes to burn it off. It just might raise your eyebrows!

The same thing goes for everything we eat on a daily basis. What are we eating and how does it fit into a healthy lifestyle?  Will it make us gain weight or help us to maintain our weight?  It’s about education, it’s about choices, and it’s about decisions. It’s up to you to decide if your decision is worth your life, those of who love you at home, those who depend on you on the job, and especially of those you took an oath to protect.

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Captain Joe Hempel recently retired with 35 years of service at the Colerain Township (OH) Fire Department. He received a degree in Food Service Management from Cincinnati State Community College and his Bachelor of Fire Science Engineering from the University of Cincinnati. While serving as a Paramedic-Firefighter, Captain Hempel was a former ACE Certified Fitness Coordinator, and accumulated years of training through local healthcare systems and the National Fire Academy.