Obesity Concerns In The Profession of Firefighting
By Hussien Jabai, MS, CSCS, CPT
When you dial 911, telecommunicators gather intel and first responders are dispatched to the location of the emergency. As we have all probably witnessed through first-hand experience or media observation, this typically involves some sort of law enforcement, fire department, or medical response depending on the nature of the call. As citizens and members of our society, we expect those dispatched to our aid to be able to accomplish the workload or task presented before them. I am a firm believer that any one call does not have an age restriction, weight standard, or established prerequisite. No matter who shows up to that call, young or old, lean or obese, everyone should be able to provide you with the aid you need. Lack of physical fitness should not be an excuse in living up to the standard of a department. Weight or lifestyle should not be an excuse when unable to perform at an optimal level. Not only is obesity among the firefighting population associated with decreased physical fitness and job-task performance, but it is linked to poor cardio-metabolic profiles, injuries in the field, and possibly cardiovascular issues (Brown et al., 2016).
As if firefighting is not already dangerous enough with breaching burning houses and fighting through debris, sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of on-duty deaths (Smith, Barr, & Kales, 2013). Obesity can be seen as a worldwide pandemic, as Researchers Damacena, Batista, Ayres, Zandonade, and Sampaio (2020) found that 48.65% of their sample group of 1018 active military Brazilian firefighters were overweight and 10.99% of that sample group were classified as obese. When looking at national statistics in first responder populations, Brown et al. (2016) found that 70% of firefighters in the U.S. were categorized as overweight or obese. Evaluating risk factors for total mortality, coronary heart disease, and stroke, you can not help but notice hypertension on the list for firefighters (Choi, Schnall, and Dobson, 2016). If we can observe rates of hypertension among firefighters, researchers are then able to evaluate possible obesity trends in the profession. Researchers Choi et al. (2016) found that 11% of a collection of 330 southern California firefighters they studied had hypertension, with 15% of those having uncontrolled high blood pressure. This collection of data indicates 1 out of 10 firefighters in this sample walks around with the major risk factor of hypertension. Although there is not a direct study linking sedentary work on the job as an occupational risk factor for hypertension among firefighters in a clinical setting, Choi et al. (2016) suggests it’s possible involvement. Not only could sedentary work be a factor, but the trend of a decrease in physical activity as one becomes older (Marcos-Pardo, Martinez-Rodriguez, & Gil-Arias, 2018) could also contribute to lack of physical activity and decrease in metabolic expenditure within the profession for career firefighters. Lifetime career firefighters that have been in the profession for awhile would see significant benefits in body composition, by decreasing fat mass and increasing muscle mass, and increasing caloric expenditure when implementing a strength and conditioning or resistance training program (Marcos-Pardo, Martinez-Rodriguez, & Gil-Arias, 2018).
Fire departments should have fitness and wellness programs in place to not only improve their injury management system in place for personnel, but to also reduce the cost of payout toward workers’ compensation claims. Phelps et al. (2018) concluded that claims in this profession could range from $5,168 to $34,000 per claim filed. This would mean that any single injury can greatly impact the finances of the city. With that being said, doesn’t it make sense to incorporate strength and conditioning programs, annual fitness testing, and baseline job-readiness standards. Improving the level of “health and well-being of firefighters is key to preserving public safety” (Yoon, Kim, Y., Kim, S., & Ahn, 2016). Not only would the workers’ compensation claims take a toll on the finances of the city, but you would also have to pay personnel to replace that individual for their shift. So, the department ends up paying out double for covering one shift. Wellness programs that improve the body composition and performance of the firefighters could also change the mentality and morale of the entire department. Departments could hire strength and conditioning coordinators specifically for their designated stations, or contract a vendor to provide physical fitness testing and exercise prescription. However departments decide to combat this growing concern, obesity in the profession of firefighting needs to be controlled and decreased.
Brown, A. L., Poston, W., Jahnke, S. A., Keith Haddock, C., Luo, S., Delclos, G. L., & Sue Day, R. (2016). Weight loss advice and prospective weight change among overweight firefighters. International journal of occupational and environmental health, 22(3), 233–239. https://doi.org/10.1080/10773525.2016.1207045
Choi, B., Schnall, P., & Dobson, M. (2016). Twenty-four-hour work shifts, increased job demands, and elevated blood pressure in professional firefighters. International archives of occupational and environmental health, 89(7), 1111–1125. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00420-016-1151-5
Damacena, F. C., Batista, T. J., Ayres, L. R., Zandonade, E., & Sampaio, K. N. (2020). Obesity prevalence in Brazilian firefighters and the association of central obesity with personal, occupational and cardiovascular risk factors: a cross-sectional study. BMJ open, 10(3), e032933. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2019-032933
Marcos-Pardo, P. J., Martínez-Rodríguez, A., & Gil-Arias, A. (2018). Impact of a motivational resistance-training programme on adherence and body composition in the elderly. Scientific reports, 8(1), 1370. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-19764-6
Phelps, S. M., Drew-Nord, D. C., Neitzel, R. L., Wallhagen, M. I., Bates, M. N., & Hong, O. S. (2018). Characteristics and Predictors of Occupational Injury Among Career Firefighters. Workplace health & safety, 66(6), 291–301. https://doi.org/10.1177/2165079917740595
Smith, D. L., Barr, D. A., & Kales, S. N. (2013). Extreme sacrifice: sudden cardiac death in the US Fire Service. Extreme physiology & medicine, 2(1), 6. https://doi.org/10.1186/2046-7648-2-6
Yoon, J. H., Kim, Y. K., Kim, K. S., & Ahn, Y. S. (2016). Characteristics of Workplace Injuries among Nineteen Thousand Korean Firefighters. Journal of Korean medical science, 31(10), 1546–1552. https://doi.org/10.3346/jkms.2016.31.10.1546