COMBAT READY? THE CHALLENGE OF AGING IN THE FIRE SERVICE
Having been a successful line officer for a long time, you are guaranteed to face the one aspect of the profession that no amount of fire training or experience can reverse…age. This is not to say that the aging process cannot be altered, or that by sheer chronology one is doomed to retirement. What is does say however is that change is inevitable, and to endure you must now do more than just maintain. You must recognize, admit, and commit to improving your personal performance, regardless of your experience, popularity or recognized ability. Ironically, with all your skill and expertise, this is the one task that does not come easily, especially for the older officer still on the line. This is the point in your career at which you will need to know what qualities you possess that you can use to extend your time on the line. In addition, you will need to find help in the areas of health and fitness, nutrition and career planning that will keep you motivated, strong, pain free and most importantly, involved in the last years of your career.
THE FIREFIGHTER TETRAHEDRON
Much like the fire tetrahedron described in IFSTA’s Essentials of Firefighting, Volume 5, there are four interdependent principles to the “firefighter tetrahedron” for career longevity. Take any side away from the tetrahedron and the “career flame” is lessened or extinguished. These four sides can be viewed as: fitness, health, well-being and professional development. When attended to and modified properly, these life conditions can guarantee effective behavior and solid decision-making resulting in a long and successful career.
Side One: Fitness through Exercise
For years, experience was the only criteria for validating “fitness to command”. Older line officers were treated like “sacred cows” and many began to look like them as well. Just knowing what to do was enough to keep any job until you quit or died, hopefully not the latter. Today, you cannot rely on your experience and the coddling of the fire station mollies as your mark of fitness. Your crew is well-intentioned when they make your life easier, often forgetting to mention the new uniform or the twenty pounds it hides. So do yourself a favor and look in the mirror. Do some sprints at the local high school track and take your pulse. Realize that you must commit yourself to a life of renewed physical enthusiasm if you are going to continue in your job. And remember, you are not alone.
Firefighter fitness, whatever the age or rank, is becoming a top priority as we head into the 21st century. Whether because of insurance programs, departmental philosophy or general awareness, most progressive fire departments are creating effective and sustaining fitness and exercise programs. Starting with baseline physicals and moving toward individualized exercise programs, every firefighter has the opportunity to progress down a path of “body appropriate” strength, balance and movement programs. Gone are the myths of “being exposed” as out of shape or unable to “do the job”. In their place are peer fitness programs designed specifically around the physical demands of the job. More importantly, these fitness programs provide information and benchmarks suitable for creating firefighter specific techniques that increase and promote fitness success. In addition, individual department statistics are applied to the fire service in general and made available to everyone, further increasing the effectiveness of the peer fitness programs.
How these fitness opportunities are applied to one’s age and rank is ultimately up to the individual. This means you. To succeed you must take a long, hard and honest look at your fitness level, keeping in mind all things “body appropriate”. Age, previous injuries, body type and job requirements all factor into what is an appropriate level of fitness. Evaluations will give you a benchmark from which to begin, but accepting a realistic set of goals and time specific exercises by which to accomplish them are the keys to improving your physical situation. The older line officer may be more focused on losing weight and improving flexibility then bench pressing 350 pounds just to impress fellow firefighters. Vertical strength and balance may ensure an injury free year as opposed to bulking up like a linebacker. Your goal is to face this personal dragon like you do all others in your career, with honesty and intelligence. Use what makes you a good line officer, brutal honesty stripped of ego and an unwavering commitment to what is right.
Whatever the personal challenges that come with accepting a new standard of fitness, there is help available. Remember, the “boomers” are the new target center of the population and there is a great deal of available information on keeping “young and healthy”. Information on the internet, beginning with “firefighter fitness”, provides invaluable resources for creating an appropriate workout program. Local fitness instructors as well as fellow firefighters or “peer fitness instructors” can help with monitoring and providing appropriate expectations. The key to career fitness for any firefighter at any age is balance and moderation.
Do your homework. Analyze exactly what it is you do and the physical requirements needed to do “it” and modifying existing programs to those specific needs. Begin “slow and steady” if you are extremely “challenged”. You may not start out jogging four times a week, but rather walking six times a week. You may never dead lift with the new recruits, but a combination of stretching and strength exercises designed specifically for your body will put you right back in the game. The one advantage of age is that you know yourself and you can design a program that works best by simply using your greatest asset… experience. What worked for you in the past? What exactly needs to be modified to be successful? For many older line officers this means walking instead of running and using fixed weight machines instead of free weights to compensate for “old war wounds”. Whatever the challenge, the key to conditioning is to realize you are never going to do it as fast or as strong as you once did, no matter what your age; but you can aspire to do it as efficiently and with fewer consequences just as before. With proper exercise, your bunker gear gets lighter, climbing and crouching is done with less effort, SCBA bottles last longer and overall command is done physically as well as mentally without thoughts of fatigue interfering with decisions.
Side Two: Health through Medical Science
Although health is closely associated with fitness, its separation into its own leg of the “firefighter’s tetrahedron” is due to its dependence on the mind. Health is “mind appropriate” and relies on discipline and consistency as well as balance and moderation. Every firefighter makes many decisions everyday that affect his or her health and most of these are mental in nature. Whether or not to quit smoking or having “one last drink” or an extra piece of pie, are conscious decisions toward or away from a healthy lifestyle. Add to this, meal-planning and wellness behaviors, and we begin to understand the mental resolve needed to be healthy.
Again, much like the peer fitness programs throughout the fire service, fire science is combining with medical science to provide a clear and accurate picture of exactly what is needed to be a “healthy” firefighter. More importantly, through cooperation with various medical institutions and their studies specific to firefighters, we have access to the latest information regarding health factors, their indicators and how to modify them through nutrition, weight control and medicines.
Cardiac health, oxygen volume (VO2), stamina, endurance and strength can all be evaluated utilizing medical exams and tests geared specifically to the firefighter. Stress tests, body fat analysis, cholesterol and triglyceride ratios and even sugar production are just a few of the procedures providing greater understanding into what makes a healthy firefighter. From these test results come valuable benchmarks and identifiable markers designed to indicate risk factors leading toward such conditions as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome and the like. Some of these conditions are without signs or symptoms, so measurement becomes even more important. The most famous “silent killer”, cardiovascular disease, remains the leading cause of death in firefighters as well as the general population. Of concern to us is that 37% of firefighter fatalities are due to sudden cardiac death, while in the general population the rate is only 13%....and half of these give no warning to the victim.
Yearly medical exams provide an accurate picture of a firefighter’s baseline health and application of specific wellness programs can improve the health picture year to year. Studies have shown no matter what an initial evaluation indicates, improvement through recovery programs, meal planning specific to individual dietary needs, medicines and the control or elimination of counterproductive habits provide significant increases in overall health.
But just taking the yearly exams and wanting to do better is not enough. Again, this is why health is a “mind appropriate” challenge. You as a firefighter have got to maintain the discipline and resolve to follow “Doctor’s orders” and understand what the medical markers mean to you and how to actively improve them. Some are obvious, such as reducing salt or body weight to lower blood pressure or modifying your diet to control both the good and bad cholesterols. Others, such as your predisposition to metabolic syndrome or diabetes, may take a greater understanding and shared control by your physician. But whatever the indicators, as a successful if somewhat older line officer, you must believe they can be controlled and/or modified to further enhance overall health. The only real difference is that young firefighters changing medical markers is much like tuning a Ferrari, while older officers can compare the changing numbers to the timing of an old Ford Truck. For the aging line officer, health is learning to control the basic wellness principles that are mind appropriate, and then letting nature do the rest.
Side Three: Well-Being through Energy
Well-being is the third side of the “firefighter tetrahedron” and the most difficult to “grab a hold of”. Words like happiness, joy, satisfaction, relaxation, contentment and peace are acknowledged as being associated with well-being but there is no real concrete definition or tangible scale of measurement. Interestingly enough, as different as it can be for each one of us, we know what it does in our life. A sense of well-being gives us strength to face the day, energy to accomplish any task and an enduring sense of life’s purpose. It can be found in the breath of a child or on a long walk. We find it in music and art everyday. It is celebration with family and friends. We know what “well-being” is and what it means deep down inside ourselves even if we cannot define it.
Unfortunately, the proof of the existence of well-being in a firefighter is measured in its absence. The lack of well-being inside a firefighter can be described in one word, STRESS. Because it is everywhere in a firefighter’s life it has become a major topic of scientific study and is easily identified and measured. Studies have shown stress to be the leading cause of firefighter death, whether from heart disease, stroke, injury or depression. Stress can be chronic or acute and can manifest itself anywhere, anytime, and for a myriad of reasons.
Of all the folks in emergency services, line officers seem to be the best equipped to hide stress. Their training and experience, geared toward controlling chaos, lead them away from any of the tell-tale signs of stress. Confusion, uncertainty and even guilt can be suppressed much like negative fireground behavior. Older firefighters have grown up in a culture that remedied stress by ignoring it or worse, burying it in macho behaviors. Too often, the physical signs of stress such as headaches, irritability and depression are denied and left to manifest themselves in loss of motivation, productivity and general quality of life.
Clinically we know that stress is a physical response to change and is, for the most part, necessary in our lives. A majority of short term stress is dealt with quickly and efficiently whereas negative, long term and poorly handled stress can lead to physical illness as well as mental disorders. We understand that in a twenty year career firefighters have experienced death and disaster, each one building on another, eventually triggering stress responses not always beneficial to the individual or to the next situation encountered. It is how we deal with stress that determines our success and ultimately our health and well-being… and knowing that we are not alone.
Today, we know more about stress than ever before and have programs designed to lessen the cumulative effects that stress can produce. Stress management, whether through education, therapy or common experience is creating positive and productive results in identifying and controlling stress and its various manifestations. The basics of eating right, exercising and rest go a long way in building a defense against the negative effects of stress. Understanding our reliance on socialized behavior and sharing our profession through specific programs such as Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Teams or personal counseling are critical to providing the help that is needed by everyone in emergency services.
When it comes to a common sense solution, modifying personal behavior can be very productive in increasing a sense of well-being and diminishing the negatives associated with stress. Clinical tests involving “visualization”, deep-breathing techniques, bio-feedback and various forms of exercise and meditation have been proven to be effective forms of self-help. Moreover, they are being sought out and maintained by numerous firefighters in their desire to minimize stress in their lives and careers. The simple routine of stretching can lead to an interest in Yoga. The practice of Yoga can present an awareness of breathing techniques whose implementation can culminate in the study and practice of meditation. The natural practices of mind and body can provide a powerful foundation for personal strength if not subverted by unnatural relaxation techniques such as drugs or alcohol. Remember, unlike artificial methods, the art of relaxation is to increase awareness while at the same time, letting the body release its tension. Masking awareness is not a solution for eliminating stress.
From these insights we have come to understand that well-being goes way beyond the generic absence of stress. To better identify and utilize our sense of well-being, we must acknowledge and apply a spiritual “leap of faith” to our lives; a belief in “something” beyond ourselves. For some, this leap is a great canyon while for others it is just a small step. One taken however, well-being is instinctively felt to be the continuation of the moral and ethical values inside each and every firefighter…past, present and future. It is in this “spirit appropriate” atmosphere that a sense of well-being exists and can be made to grow and flourish.
Side Four: Career Planning
As a stand alone triangle, the three principles of fitness, health and well-being can sustain and improve any firefighter’s existence on the job. Real career longevity however, needs one more component to complete the “firefighter’s tetrahedron” and challenge both the new firefighter and the older line officer, both of whom want more than just “time in the fire service”. The other dimensional aspect that must be factored into career longevity is career planning through professional development.
For the new firefighter, promotion and progress are a natural extension of training, education and experience, but for the older line officer this means planning ahead and strategizing a completely new direction for your career. Denying your desire to continue in the fire service after line duty is a short-sighted approach and limits any outside help from reaching you. Waiting for an injury is reckless and inappropriate; and expecting a promotion as a reward for service is unreasonable at best. The keys to success are to be open-minded to the possibilities available, receptive to help offered, and to know what strengths you possess that will make you a productive and enthusiastic fire service administrator.
If you don’t like training every day and keeping endless records, then becoming a training officer is probably not the best choice for a career change. On the other hand, if you are good at solving problems and take a real interest in the men and women of your department, then a job in operations or personnel may be the answer. Knowing yourself and putting your experiences to work on your behalf will help in finding a suitable job. Prepare for this next step by taking classes and obtaining certifications appropriate to the job classification you are moving toward.
Next, find a Chief Officer you can relate to and who can mentor you through the long and seemingly endless process. Finally, and this one is tough… you must apply outside your own organization. You cannot rely on your fire department “making room” for a deserving line officer. Do not take it personally but administration’s job is not rewarding you for years of service, but rather to recruit the best person at the right time for a particular job vital to their department’s continued success.
Staying fit and healthy, while maintaining a positive attitude, is well within the ability of every firefighter and officer on line. In addition, while it can be daunting for any line officer regardless of age or inclination, broadening a career into administration can be effectively accomplished. So for anyone who values service and contribution at any level and desires to extend their career in a constructive and productive way; the firefighter’s tetrahedron of fitness, health, well-being and career development is a workable approach.
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Special Thanks to: Jason Vanheulen, CSCS, CPT: Head of Strength and Condition, Cascade Club, 1300 Westhaven Drive, Vail, Colorado 81657 www.cascadeclub.com