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Firefighter Wellness

17 July 2020
Firefighter Wellness

In the previous edition, I likened the state of one’s wellbeing to that of a house on fire.  The idea being that if you catch the ailment or concern early enough, it can be addressed with less energy and resources, and everyone on the block may have not noticed something has gone terribly wrong. 

In recent years, the wellness community has adopted a model of health that is fashioned as a wheel or a pie with your overall well-being at the center with various aspects of that wellness as different pieces of the pie.  Common pieces of the wheel or pie include physical, spiritual, emotional and financial.  The idea being that overall wellness has several components that must maintained for a person to thrive.

First responders, however, have a very unique set of issues or challenges that must be addressed for the responder to thrive. According to a University of Phoenix survey of first responders, 84% claim to have experienced a traumatic event on the job, 27% have been diagnosed with depression and another 10% have been diagnosed with PTSD. Thrown on top of that interrupted sleep patterns and a higher incidence of substance abuse and binge drinking and now we may have a real emergency at hand.

I might suggest that a model for responder wellness would look vastly different from one that may work for the general population.  That is why I like the model of a structure fire with exposures as compared to a model of a wheel or pie.  A fire with multiple exposures indicates more of a sense of urgency, and we can surmise a situation where too much heat in any aspect of wellness may quickly spread to other areas and we soon begin to lose control. 

And all the issues that a first responder faces tend to feed off each other. Imagine a scenario where a responder is exposed to a traumatic incident.  One of the coping mechanisms readily available to responders is alcohol, which studies indicate is often abused after a traumatic event. This may cause a low level of depression in the responder affecting relationships, sleep patterns and increased overall stress levels, all of which perpetuate a downward spiral.  

At this point in the game, with a little clarity and intestinal fortitude, the responder can get back on the right track.  However, if these unhealthy and ineffectual coping mechanism continue, it is tantamount to throwing fuel on the fire which often quickly spreads to the remaining dimensions of your personal well-being. If left unchecked, we soon have a real incident on our hands. This may happen relatively quickly or take decades to fully ignite. If we are lucky enough to have not experienced it firsthand, we all have seen this play out in at least one member close to us.

As first responders, we have a responsibility to the public we serve to be in best shape possible, both physically and mentally. In future installments we will learn more about some of these issues that we are exposed to and examine strategies to best deal with those challenges. Until then, be well and don’t let those fires get out of hand. 

bio photo

Lieutenant Michael "Sporty" Kilbane

Michael Kilbane is a retired officer from the Cleveland Fire Department having served for over 35 years.

In that time, he has spearheaded many efforts to advance the betterment of the division through wellness initiatives and grants. He has also authored a pamphlet on maintaining back strength and health for firefighters.  Mr. Kilbane’s education includes an undergraduate degree in both Philosophy and Natural Health, along with master’s level coursework in both Physiology and Philosophy.  He is also a member of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is recognized through that organization as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. As a trained massotherapist, Mr. Kilbane has also witnessed literally first hand the damage done to first responders by over straining in some of the most hostile work environments. His most recent focus is utilizing kettle bells for functional training and is the author of The Athletes Ultimate Guide to Kettlebell Training.

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