Developing a Wellness Program within the Fire Service


By Scott Lantz, Loudoun County Fire – Center for Fitness and Wellness
Be the Foundation for Others

The push out of the norm into uncharted territory is exactly what the fire service needs, and ironically, what the industry leaders are searching for – but are slow to invest in. For decades the issues of reducing LODD’s, cancer prevention, mental health, fitness, and wellness have been the cornerstone for innumerable keynote speeches and talking points for Chiefs. The problems are known, and so is the solution, so why is it so difficult to close the gap? Those barriers reveal themselves as the solutions are presented; the task of building a wellness program is daunting in most departments across the country. The key to winning the fight is common among every department, no matter size or demographic. It is the sacred component that makes this profession the greatest and one we all hold with the highest regard: THE TEAM.

To build a wellness program requires a foundation of determination and grit with a ‘no-quit’ mindset. Once the stones are laid, the structure will gain the poise to rise and expand into actual brick and mortar. The initial structural components are people with the mindset to bring the best to their peers and the profession. A team that is hellbent on ensuring that the people that run to help others remain in the best possible condition, mentally and physically, to provide a service to those who entrust us to serve them in their worst moments.

Lose the Emotion, Keep the Determination

My initial idea to build a Fitness/Wellness program was drawn in dry-erase marker and was quickly wiped clean an hour later. Ironically most of the specifics in place today were not to be seen again once they were wiped away 8 years ago. I suppose if you would have told me that, then, I would have been irate and ready to argue why we need them. As I learned through the process, the specifics changed, but the fundamental pillars were not lost. I have also learned that losing emotional attachment to specifics while remaining determined to complete the initiative was key to creating buy-in and avoiding adversarial relationships with other stakeholders.

Building a team of peers that share a broad vision will strengthen the resolve of the entire program. You must seek out those that live the lifestyle we intend to impart to others. You must also seek those that differ in opinion and experience, thus leaving the emotion in the rearview. We have continually added personnel to our team with a wide range of education and background in fitness and wellness. Everyone on the team brings expertise and/or experience, which leads to ideologies and solutions not possible by an individual. However, leading the team will present a challenge in tempering the eagerness against the impeding bureaucracy of any Municipal Fire Department.

What Drives the Decision Makers

Navigating the competing needs and initiatives within any organization can be challenging. Couple those hurdles with the local government processes established to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly; you can quickly find yourself in a continual holding pattern. It would be best if you spoke the language of the decision-makers within your department and those that the Chiefs answer to. The language is most commonly fiscal responsibility and accountability to constituents. The literature has been clear over decades of research that employer-funded fitness and wellness programs reduce leave hours, improve injury outcomes and give a positive return on investment within 2-3 years of implementation. Proving prevention is difficult, to say the least; however, projecting prevention is not. Injury rates for firefighters are universally higher than other public service occupations. Those lost-time injuries quickly become expensive for a business that requires minimum staffing. Defining strategies to quell climbing injury rates tied to financial outcomes will lend themselves to success.

Give them what they want, then what they need

Providing services and programs to our firefighters requires buy-in from the masses for success. The trainers/coaches that comprise the Fitness Wellness Team will act as the force multipliers and diplomats for the program’s delivery and success. They must be given a voice on what the personnel want from the program. Those wants will likely be strength and conditioning programs and nutrition guidance. They are always on the top of the list but require the most effort, compliance, and consistency. Programs such as functional movement screens, mobility, soft tissue work, prehab strategies, and yoga may not be shiny and attractive, but they will begin to achieve buy-in. The team members can deliver those programs and give personnel immediate feedback and tools to implement. I have long thought that empowering our people to feel and move better on their own will drive hunger for more. These programs also provide ownership and empowerment to the team members driving buy-in and creating a feeling of identity and true impact.

Baseline human performance education for all personnel is the ideal starting point for any initiative. A consistent message for the entire department sets the stage for universal buy-in. It will open doors to aspects of human performance that many had not considered. The O2X Workshops provided the foundation for growth and conversation on many topics. Sleep and yoga are now topics routinely discussed at many levels of the organization as vital components for our personnel to remain mentally and physically resilient. Yoga courses are the most requested in-station service our Wellness Center staff provides. The O2X workshops provided an education that was needed but only recognized as vital to emergency response after their implementation. Many quickly connected how they could impact their health with operational readiness. The workshops also initiated a hunger within the workforce for resources and education to continue to improve in all aspects of human performance.

Wherever you are in developing a wellness program for your department, stay the course.