Obesity is a growing problem for the American general population as a whole but evolving research coming out about the American fire service paints an alarming picture with rates of overweight /obesity being higher among firefighters than the general population. Obesity puts people at risk for a host of diseases, increases risk for injury, and results in more lost days when obese firefighters are compared to their normal weight peers. There has been some speculation that rates may be inflated due to firefighters who have a high BMI but low body fat and a lot of muscle. However, if you look at the research that compares the two, though, the rate of misclassification is below 2%. Research also is revealing that between 7% and 10% of firefighters have a BMI over 35 which puts them in the extremely high risk “severe obesity” category.
All of this data comes at a time when departments are more stretched than ever on budgets and forced to cut costs. Unfortunately, one area that often gets cut first is any program focused on health and wellness because it doesn’t seem immediately beneficial or an immediate cost savings. However, the financial impact of obesity is not insignificant. Obese firefighters, especially those in the severe obesity range, miss more days when injured and get injured more frequently. Injury related absenteeism in the career fire service is estimated at nearly $90 million a year and $58 million of that is just for severely obese firefighters. That doesn’t take into account any of the medical costs of the injuries. If half of just the severely obese firefighters could get down to the obese range, it is estimated that would save the United States fire service $24 million dollars a year.
So the big problem is clear, the big question is how to fix it. The Wellness Fitness Initiative (WFI) is a great program for departments that can implement it. The challenge a lot of departments have is the lack of resources to implement the physicals, train the peer fitness trainers, and set up the complete program so they don’t do any piece of it. It’s time to think out of the box to address the issue of obesity before it gets any further out of control and to find tested interventions for firefighters.
At BSOFR, we have been working with a team of scientists from the Center for Fire Rescue and EMS Health Research and participated in their-funded Research and Development grant. In their previous FEMA-funded work, the Firefighter Injury and Risk Evaluation (FIRE) Study, they found that nearly half of firefighters improved their diet and/or exercise just from a brief intervention focused on body composition. Even for firefighters who receive an annual physical, losing weight, improving diet and exercise are not always discussed because there is a limited amount of time and a lot of information they doctor has to get to the firefighter. It seems that a body composition-focused assessment with the right coaching can make a big impact and be a teachable moment for a lot of firefighters.