Author(s): John Montes. Published on November 1, 2018.

Healthy Mind, Healthy Body

Fire departments large and small should consider investing in total wellness programs for their firefighters

Last year, I was fortunate to work with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) as it developed a guide for behavioral wellness for fire departments. As part of that process, we received a presentation on the NFFF’s total wellness program, which looks at firefighters as high-performance athletes who need constant maintenance of their minds and bodies to handle the rigors of the job. It made me think of my own career as an emergency medical technician and how unhealthy I had been in caring for myself and my loved ones.

For much of my career I worked four days a week, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I actually planned a meal during a shift. Most of the time I ate out, and after a stressful shift I would cope by binging on food when I got home. I still cope with stress by eating. Despite the physical work, I rarely stretched, and I used poor mechanics when moving patients and equipment. By the age of 27, I had to have back surgery for a herniated and ruptured disk. I rarely talked about what I experienced and put on an act around my loved ones, pretending I was fine and that I enjoyed even the hardest calls.

But it doesn’t have to be that way—total wellness programs offer a variety of services to assist fire deparments. Firefighters can work with therapists who have taken the time to ride along to understand the mental and physical toll of the job; sometimes those therapists are former first responders. They can see wellness and performance coaches who help them make healthy choices in all aspects of their lives. Nutritionists can make sure they’re eating right. One program hired two full-time physical therapists to work with both injured and non-injured fire department members to ensure they stay fit and healthy. Some programs use orthopedists that specialize in caring for professional athletes to provide care to injured responders, greatly increasing the speed with which injured members are imaged and treated and getting them back on the job faster.

Wellness programs aren’t just for department members—significant others and family members can also participate in a variety of ways, including message groups, meetings with clinicians, and through events such as fundraisers and exercise classes. This is a critically important element that is missing in most first responder organizations around the country. For a variety of reasons, our loved ones may not fully understand why we behave the way we do; studies have found the divorce rate among first responders is more than 80 percent. By using total wellness programs to address the needs of significant others, departments are supporting a crucial safety net for responders.

Aside from the anecdotal benefits, strong evidence exists for investing in these programs. Since creating its total wellness program, the Denver Fire Department has seen a return on investment of more than 100 percent, the result of reduced costs for workers compensation, overtime, and position backfill. The Boston Fire Department has seen a 30 percent reduction in injuries over the past two years since it launched a similar program. Small departments may be tempted to regard such programs as luxuries only big departments can afford, but that’s not the case. For thinly staffed volunteer departments, for example, covering for lost time can be devastating; they may have to request mutual aid from neighboring departments, or in some cases pay for their areas to be covered.

These programs require a willingness to invest and patience for them to return dividends. But there are already examples illustrating that the model works. I only wish we had them when I was out there.

JOHN MONTES is specialist, Emergency Services Public Fire Protection, at NFPA. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler