The Obese Firefighter Epidemic- And why it’s Happening – Part 1

We all know it. We see it all around us. At the firehouse, training, on mutual aid calls. Firefighters and responders in general are getting fat. And most are staying fat. There’s no sugar-coating it. There’s no way to say it nicely. Many in our profession, career or volunteer, do not give a damn about their health. And it is a disgusting trend all around the nation that we are all sick of seeing, and it needs to end.

This is part one of a two-part series of articles. In these articles, we will be diving into the health trends of the fire department, why it’s happening, how it’s affecting us, and how to make it better.

First; The Trend. Every fire department and every shift has the guys, or gals, that like things to be as easy as possible. This goes for everything from cleaning to training, and most definitely includes their eating. They would much rather order something from a fast food place, or have something made by someone else, rather than put in the five or ten minutes of effort themselves to make their own healthy meal. This usually results in a foot-long sub, a pizza, or a “burger” from a mass production assembly line.

This, believe it or not, leads to obesity. Which leads to one being sluggish or lethargic, which leads to more obesity and more medical problems, which leads to depression, which unfortunately in many cases leads to suicide, if left untreated. I’m not saying if you eat a fatty meal you’re going to drive home after and kill yourself. I’m saying that a continuous unhealthy diet, can lead to many factors, including depression. Which, it is no secret that those who are clinically depressed are more likely to commit suicide.

A CDC conducted a study from 2011-2012 in which they found 70% of firefighters were overweight or obese. Take a look around your fire station. You may be surprised that this number matches, or may even be less, than what you see. If you are a concerned individual, the first question coming to your mind should be “how do I make this change?”


Second; Why it’s Happening. For you, the answers may be right in front of your face. You may have been seeing them for some time now but didn’t want to say anything. For others, it may not be so obvious, which is part of the problem. Many are so stuck in their habits that they see what they are doing as “ok” or “normal” and not a severe life threat.

The answer? It is the culture of the firehouse. Think about it. We are around the same group of firefighters (usually), who have formed bad and dirty habits placed upon them from the firefighters when they first started. And, as a culture, you tend to share the same customs as those around you. Kind of like your own little village. So if the senior guy(s) have a custom of eating donuts every morning, subs every lunch and take-out every dinner, it will cling on to you if you’re not careful.

Many firefighters pride themselves in who can do the most. Whether it’s eating a pizza or pie, drinking soda, crunching on cookies, whatever it is. If it can be made into a competition, they’ll find a way to win it. The older generation goes with the notion of “well I haven’t worked out in 25 years and I’m fine. Why start now?” Some even take pride in their obesity.

Even worse, you can get pressured into eating what they do with the classic “one-time won’t hurt you!” Or even made fun of and berated for choosing your own meal of chicken and veggies over pizza. Things like that slowly build up and plant the seed of doubt in your mind, and make you question if a healthy life is worth being made fun of every shift for what you eat. It is up to you with how you handle it. Offer to cook meals. Offer advice. Even ask why they don’t ever bring in anything healthy. Make THEM second-guess their decisions. NOT you.


Third; How it’s Affecting Us. It shouldn’t be hard to tell. Last year, unofficially, there were 55 LODD’s related to medical issues. I say unofficial because the ‘official’ numbers don’t get released until May/June but after a few hours of research and counting on the USFA website, those were the numbers. That makes 59% of the LODD’s medical-related. 59% of those LODD’s were 100% preventable. If you don’t think this affects you, or could affect you, you are wrong.

Heart attacks are like fires. They don’t care who you are, what you are doing, what day of the week it is or whether it is night or day. But like fires, they are preventable. Most all departments now have a fire prevention program. And studies show that those departments have fewer fires due to educated people. So what would happen if your department had a “Heart Attack Prevention” program? Are you catching on?

Still wondering how this would affect you? If one of those guys on your shift that weighs 350 goes down on the second floor, can you get him out? What if the house-alarm goes off at 0230 and gives one of the firefighters on your shift a heart-attack and puts him into cardiac arrest? What if you’re advancing a handline to the back-side of a large two-and-a-half and your partner needs to take a breather halfway up?

The way other people take care of themselves or don’t, directly affects those they work with. If this message is not clear to you yet, something is very wrong, and you yourself may be the problem.

Lastly; How to make it better. Though the answer is obvious and simple, the people are what makes it difficult. It follows the phrase “You can lead a horse to water, but can’t make him drink” idiom. You need to work out. You need to sweat. You need to do cardio, eat healthily, and be strict on what you put in your body and say no to the donut.

You can push, pull, pry and poke those you work with that are the inherently lazy ones to join you for a workout and chances are you will just annoy them. We all need to accept the fact that there will always be those people that would rather leave a crater in a chair cushion than put in some effort for an hour in the gym. I’m not saying to stop trying, but as with everything else, we need to draw the line when we see no results coming from our effort, and focus on the task at hand; making firefighters fit for duty.

Thankfully, there are companies, and individuals, that are making a stand and promoting the absolute necessity for fitness and health in the fire service. Because we are brothers and sisters, and we care for each other whether you are paid or volunteer, male or female, gay or straight, fat or skinny. Companies such as ourselves (Thin Line Fitness), 555 Fitness and Next Rung that are devoted to the health and well-being of everyone that walks the Thin Red Line. There is even a fire service workout supplement company, Fire Science Nutrition!

Men and women all over the world are realizing the epidemic is getting so bad that there has to be a movement. A movement just as big as when the steam engine replaced the hand-pumped apparatus, when turnout gear replaced thigh-high rubber boots, or when SCBA’s were introduced and replaced damp sponges and thick mustaches as “filters”.

Now, you may be asking yourself; “But Mr. Healthy-man, how can I start being healthy too?”

The answer? Start by eating right.           

You need to think of your body as a vehicle. Would you rather have the 12-cylinder sports car that runs on premium? Or the 1965 deuce-and-a-half that runs on old used motor oil? What you put in your body is what you burn for your energy, and directly reflects your performance, recovery and rest. So, if you put whole grains, meat, vegetables, fruits, eggs and other whole foods in your body, you will perform at a higher level, and be a healthier person, than if you put white bread, candy, soda, donuts and cake in your mouth.

Bring up the subject of doing something fitness related for training while on shift. A simple obstacle course with dummy drags and beating on a tire with a maul can be a good introduction into something more in-depth for future drills or workouts. Leave articles about being physically active or eating healthy on the coffee table. BE THE LEADER OF THE MOVEMENT.

As the new generation of firefighters, we all have an additional duty. Whether we want to admit it or not, that duty is to lose the bad traditions. The worst of which is the unhealthy living and “don’t give a damn” attitude about our health that is killing us at a disgusting rate, more than any other fire ground activity.

Talk is cheap. Actions show meaning. From the FDNY to Seattle FD, we can be the change the fire service needs, and what it needs is the death of bad health, bad eating, and laziness.  We need to stop killing our own, and no one can do it but US.


Special thanks to 555 Fitness, next Rung, and Fire Science Nutrition. If you would like to learn more about getting you and your department healthy and in shape, contact Thin Line Fitness today!