911 Tactical Performance Blog

Health and Wellness Program Mistakes

Starting a health and wellness program tends to be a challenging task, but if set up correctly it will have huge benefits in the long run. Many Chiefs, Captains, and Safety officers have enough on their plate without having to worry about implementing a health and wellness program. Still with the increase costs in our health care system having a health and wellness program is no longer a luxury, but rather a necessity. So where do you start?

  1. WHO WILL OVERSEE THE PROGRAM

This is the most important question before you design your program. Will it be a safety officer? Division Chief? Captain? Firefighter? or maybe someone else? A lot of Fire departments assign a captain or firefighter to oversee the program, and in most cases this can be very challenging. First you are asking the firefighter to do two different jobs, usually without a pay increase. Second, the time commitment needed to perform each job successful is difficult. Third, barriers could isolate the firefighter which makes them ineffective. Because they are both a firefighter and health and wellness professional a certain stigma could be created from SR. Staff, on-line personnel, or the Union. This creates an “Us vs Them” environment, which in the long term could create distrust.

To truly have a successful health and wellness program a strength and conditioning professional should be hired. An individual who has the knowledge, experience, and personality that could adapt to the fire culture. A personal trainer could be the answer, yet they generally work on contract which could lead to a lack of ownership, and therefore not maximize your program. Also, they could lack the required knowledge of performance training and rehabilitation needed to help the firefighters. You could hire a physical therapist, but they tend to think differently because of the way they were trained and educated. Although experienced in rehabilitation, some are lacking in the performance enhancement side. Finally, there is the Performance Coach (or Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach). These coach’s are generally found in the college or pro ranks where they focus on developing the athletes overall physical abilities. Some are familiar with certain rehabilitation principles, but mostly they focus on strength and conditioning.

Because the fire service is very fraternal it is much like a sports team. They tend to be a close family but not necessarily open to many outsiders. This is where the Performance Coach has an advantage over the personal trainer and physical therapist. They are generally dealing with teams so they have to be smart on the performance side but they also have to develop their motivational and coaching skills. Whereas the personal trainer is generally one on one and the physical therapist is usually in a clinical setting, they may lack that experience working within a team environment. A successful Performance Coach will also be experienced in the politics associated with coaching staffs, administration, and the players which will help them bridge the gaps between Sr. staff, on line personnel, and the Union.

Whoever oversees your program needs to be knowledgable, experienced, and an effective communicator. The position will requires 100% commitment to be affective and they must be patient in developing the program. Overall, the best candidate would be some one who has experience working with teams (or within a similar culture), knowledgeable in performance training philosophies as well versed in rehabilitation    programs (and knowing the difference). 

2. CREATE A PLAN

You would not come up on a fire seen without sizing up the situation, so why would you develop a program without a strategic plan? First and foremost, you need to think about the overall goals you want to achieve. Certainly, a high return on investment (ROI) is ideal, but it will take years to see any ROI and may not even be a realistic option given the scope of your program. Perhaps you want to be more specific and set your goals on certain levels of participation (i.e. 25% participation in 1 year), purchase equipment, develop policies, establish fitness assessments, or build relationships. A goal for year two may be 50% participation. Years three and four could focus more on behavior changes and cost saving strategies - such as a more effective injury prevention program, return-to duty / light duty policy, or a medical screening program.

Simple goals would be to make the firefighters feel appreciated and, therefore, more excited about health and wellness. Fitness needs to be embraced from the top down and not be discouraged. Once you have selected your professional and identified your goals, you will be able to design a method to gather your data and the strategy needed to help you achieve these goals.

  1. NO DATA

Two things need to be identified to ensure a successful health and wellness program: (1) What areas are  your firefighters interested in and (2) what health risks are associated with your fire department. Then you need to find a way to combine these two. A survey is a good starting point, it will allow you to gauge their interest in various topics of health and wellness. Be sure to make it confidential, if possible make it anonymous - this will only increase your chances of participation. It is very important to understand your culture and their attitude towards health and wellness. You may think they want a new treadmill, but they want a concept 2 rowing machine. It is important to try and meet the needs of the firefighter, otherwise you will be wasting time and resources on a program that will have little participation. It is also good to know what they like to learn about as well how they like to learn - webinars, multi-company drills,newsletters.

The other piece of the puzzle is asking employees to participate in some type of health screening. Maybe a screening / online personal health assessment (PHA) or a Fitness Assessment (again both have to be confidential). Once you have aggregate data you will be able to identify those health risks that need to be addressed. For example, the fitness assessments have shown that 70% of your firefighters are below the recommended Aerobic Capacity (VO2) of 42. Or maybe you have discovered that 50% have high blood pressure. Based off the results you should be able to design a more effective program while also show some cost avoidance by increasing their VO2 or lowering their blood pressure.

4. STRETCHING IS NOT ENOUGH

Offering a stretching program for firefighters once a week is great, but it is not a health and wellness program. Too often fire departments offer a few wellness options, like on-site yoga, workout time in the station, quarterly newsletters, discounted gym memberships, and a yearly health fair, and believe they have a health and wellness program in place. These are considered health and wellness activities and cannot be considered a true comprehensive program

A program should consist of specific goals from the start with a strategy to obtain them. That means thinking about communication, maybe incentives (maybe lower their insurance premiums for participation), gauging their interest and developing a yearly calendar that reflect the programs you going to offer. You may want to incorporate other programs that focus on firefighter health and wellness. Programs such as FirefighterFitnessOnline.com, Tacfit Firefighter, NSCA-TSAC, and Athletes Performance are all excellent resources that focus on firefighter fitness and can compliment any health and wellness program.

5. DONT FOCUS ONLY ON HIGH RISK

It is easy to target those with the most health concerns. They are generally the biggest cost drivers on claims. Firefighters with five or more health risks (obesity, diabetes, sedentary lifestyle, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, etc.) are the ones who are most likely driving up health insurance claims. While it it very important to engage these individuals, you need to focus on ALL your firefighters. It is just as important to keep those who are healthy stay healthy.

It is obvious, as we age our health declines. We become more sedentary, gain more weights, our blood pressure increases, etc. So the firefighters who were low risk in the academy may naturally move to medium risk by age 45. However, if you have a comprehensive health and wellness program that focuses on both healthy and unhealthy firefighters, you may be able to keep those low risk firefighters in that category, while at the same time move the high risk people to medium risk. This means offering a variety of programs that appeal to your entire population.

6. ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL

We all wear different size shoes, so we are not all going to be interested in the same type of health & wellness. So a discounted gym membership may appeal to one firefighter, but what about those who prefer to workout at home? Some firefighters are in great physical shape and enjoy high intensity training, but what about the sedentary firefighter? These types of workouts can be very intimidating and difficult for someone who has not started an exercise program. So a beginners exercise program may be more appropriate to get them active again. But what about the firefighter who trains for marathons and working a lot of shifts? They may benefit from an pre-hab workout to aid in recovery.

Offering a variety of programs is important. It is highly unlikely that you will ever reach 100% participation, but you are more likely to get good participation by offering activities that appeal to different people. Remember, health and wellness is not inly about exercise and nutrition. It is also about handling stress, mental and emotional wellness, having a healthy family, getting preventative screenings, quality sleep, etc. Do not continue to offer the same programs every year without any alternatives. Try to expose your firefighters to different concepts or exercise programming.

7. NO BUDGET

You must have a budget. It is impossible to get something for nothing. Your greatest investment will be the fitness professional you hire (and it is an investment). They should be able to contact other fitness professionals as well as local fitness centers in the area to help build the program. Often times these fitness professionals need to get something in return. They may agree to present a “free” seminar with the expectation that they will have a captive audience they can promote their service to. Having no budget is not an excuse to not have a health and wellness program. Also your fitness professional should be creative, even on a limited budget. Developing relationships with other professionals is standard and those who excel in this industry are generally open to helping other like-minded people with no strings attached. Overtime the investment you made with you “coach”should pay for itself.

8. LACK OF SUPPORT

Union officials and Management not only need to support the program (i.e., approve the budget), but they need to participate as well. The most successful programs are the ones where the Captains and Battalion Chiefs are visible participating. It sends a message that this is something that is important for the entire department and not just a phase.

9. NO TRACKING

It is very difficult to track the success of a health and wellness program if you are not tracking anything. At the very least you should be tracking participation. You want to see how many firefighters participated in your annual fitness assessments (which should be volunteer based) from year to year. Or maybe how many participated in your multi-company drill.

If at all possible, it is best to measure and track verifiable results. This can be done with technology such as fitness database software or a weight management program to track weight loss.

10. NO FUTURE

A health and wellness program needs constant attention. Once your first successful year is completed, it is easy to think the program can sustain itself. FALSE! you have to continue to monitor and evaluate the program. Re-establish new goals, keep a pulse on both the firefighters and department needs and continue to offer new and exciting programs.

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911 Tactical Performance
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