Leading From the Front With Health and Wellness

In the fire service, we’ve often heard the adage: “Don’t ask your firefighters to do something you’re not willing to do yourself.” While this logic may become more difficult or less practical the higher an officer climbs in the chain of command (e.g., the fire chief expecting the toilets in the fire house to be clean), there are some areas of department operations where this maxim still rings true.

One area that stands out: the leader’s pursuit of their health and wellness. Obviously, department leaders achieve personal benefits from staying healthy long after they leave the bay floor, and all the way into retirement. But maybe even more importantly, maintaining a personal commitment to health and fitness creates a major opportunity to lead from the front. When chief officers and other leaders model positive and beneficial behavior for their members, they help develop a strong culture of wellness and boost credibility and accountability for the health and wellness program(s) within the department.

When I say officers need to lead from the front in health and wellness, it’s easy to assume this means being physically fit and working out with their crew(s). While this isn’t wrong — working out is important and certainly a large piece of the health and wellness puzzle — there’s more to it. As an officer, leading from the front with your health and wellness also involves actions like adhering to cancer prevention efforts, eating right both inside and outside the firehouse, taking care of your mental health and working on your work-life balance.

While there are many ways department officers can lead from the front with their health and wellness, strategies for doing so must be practical and intentional. Furthermore, it is important that when officers implement these strategies, they stick to them for the long haul, as that’s what is expected of their department members.

Strategies for Leading From the Front

It may seem like an oversimplification, but a great place for leaders to start or restart their efforts is by evaluating the practicality of programs, policies and procedures related to health and wellness that are already in place and then applying them to their day-to-day activities as much as possible. Although this strategy may not be necessary for all leaders (many officers are already on top of their health and wellness), it’s likely to be applicable to most. This is because as we climb the organizational ladder, it’s more and more common to drift away from health and wellness requirements and the habits we know are in our best interest. We think things like: “I’ll just grab a quick bite to eat from a fast-food joint because I have payroll due,” “I’m going to skip the entire workout today because I need to finish this report,” and, “I don’t need to talk to anyone; I’m the chief and my people might perceive it as a weakness.”

Look at the programs, policies and procedures that outline your department’s health and wellness efforts with a critical eye. Make sure these guiding documents and programs are practical for operational personnel but also take into account the changing dynamics and expectations of all roles and responsibilities throughout the chain of command. While it is completely reasonable to expect line members to be able to climb the aerial in full gear or run 1.5 miles in a specific time period, is this a practical expectation for an administrative chief officer who does not have job responsibilities at a fire scene or an inspector who works inside your Community Risk Reduction Division (CRRD)?

Additionally, as you review your programs, policies and procedures, make sure they’re inclusive of all members within your organization. Are the members of the CRRD or Fire Prevention Bureau included in your health and wellness efforts? What about administrative personnel? If dispatch and/or the fire marshal fall under your department’s umbrella, are they offered peer support, critical incident stress debriefing/management (CISD/M), or employee assistance program (EAP) care after a fatal fire where they took the call or investigated the cause and origin? While crafting holistic health and wellness programs, policies and procedures is an entirely different discussion, I’m briefly mentioning it here because when we lead with our health and wellness, that means making these programs available to everyone in the department so other leaders can do the same with their crew members.

Some other areas of health and wellness aren’t as clear cut, and may require further introspection. For example, does your peer support program or CISD policy create an environment where leaders can talk to other leaders? If it doesn’t, there’s a greater likelihood that chief officers will not participate. Do your cancer prevention policies, procedures and overall department expectations outline that all members, including chief officers, who enter the hot zone participate in preliminary exposure reduction (also known as gross decon)? If not, why not?

The point is, we want to ensure our efforts include all levels of our organization, including the leaders from the right front seat to the right front office. By creating the expectation that all leaders will participate in all facets of the health and wellness programs because they’re practical and applicable, we stand to generate increased positive outcomes for the department and its members.

Expected Outcomes

Outcomes for each individual leader may look a little different depending on a variety of factors (genetics, effort, age, etc.); however, the ultimate goal of making health and wellness a priority as a leader is to get healthy and stay healthy as your role becomes less labor-intensive and more sedentary. When we take on desk-oriented positions, we tend to become less fit, to eat less healthy, and to focus less on mental health and cancer prevention than operational members. So, by being intentional in how we approach our health and wellness, we stand to not only enhance our leadership role, but also increase our likelihood of getting and staying healthier.

Looking beyond our office and our career, we can also get and stay healthier for what comes next: retirement. Unfortunately, even though many of us lead long and productive careers, we may do so only to make it a few years into retirement before circumstances that began in the fire service take us away (e.g., cancer, heart disease, mycardial infarction, suicide). So, by focusing more effort on our health and wellness now, while we’re still on the job, we better position ourselves to live long, healthy lives after we retire.

Outside of the personal benefits of being more health-centric, by leading from the front with our health and wellness we increase buy-in to our leadership and to the systems in place to support health, wellness and safety. Going back to the adage about not asking our people to do things we’re not willing to do, when our members see us making an effort to be healthier, to participate in anti-cancer efforts (e.g., nicotine cessation, wearing an SCBA when we go in after the fire), to work out and eat right, they’re more likely to do so themselves. Furthermore, they are more likely to hold themselves and others accountable for the departmental programs and guidance. “Come on, put the donut down and get into the weight room. Maybe hit the stepmill? Chief’s doing it!”

In addition to the outcomes and benefits already mentioned, there’s a high likelihood for cultural spillover into other areas of department operations when you gain momentum in health and wellness. In my experience, as members develop trust in often contentious department programs, policies and procedures (like health and wellness), other programs benefit from that trust and credibility. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this works in both directions. For example, if members see you working a structure fire without going on air, not working out, staying up way too late and eating poorly — especially when your programs and policies advise differently — you stand to create the opposite effect where there’s little perceived value in these programs and guiding documents.

When chief officers and other leaders model positive and beneficial behavior for their members, they help develop a strong culture of wellness and boost credibility and accountability for the health and wellness program(s) within the department.

Advice to Leaders

When approaching your health and wellness, remember that no one expects you to be who you were as a rookie firefighter. Your fitness level, open-minded eagerness and overall health will likely never be the same as they were when you were in your 20s. However, your crew will expect you to put in the same level of effort you ask from them. They don’t care if you have a busy day of budgets, need to get payroll done, or were up all night fielding your battalion chief’s phone calls; they simply want you to follow your own advice and do what you say is good for them to do.

So, when you’re trying to figure out what that looks like for you and other leaders in your department, make sure you consider a practical approach. You may not have time to work out while you’re on duty — that’s OK — but you can make time to walk at night with your spouse or hit the gym before work. You may not have the flexibility to eat lunch at a firehouse right at noon, so plan your meals and pack your food to take with you so you can join them for a meal when possible without holding them up. You might be responding to calls from home after hours, so either stay away from the hot zone or put your gear on before entering it. None of this is rocket science, but it has to make sense for you and your role.

Leading from the front with your health and wellness isn’t the easiest thing you’ll do as a fire officer; however, it stands to benefit both you and your department, now and into the future.

Ian Emmons

Ian Emmons is the deputy chief of operations for Washington Township in Dayton, Ohio, and has served in this role since early 2019. Emmons received his MBA from the University of Cincinnati and is a current EFOP student at the National Fire Academy. Ian sits on the Board of Directors for the Safety, Health and Survivial section of the IAFC, is an IAFC Professional Development Committee member, serves as the Education Committee Chair for IFE-USA, and sits on multiple NFPA technical committees, including 1001 and 1021. Emmons has been designated as a CFO and CTO through the CPC and received his MIFireE status from the IFE.

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