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Firefighter health a hot topic at FDIC 2008 - 4/14/2008

By Jamie Thompson
FireRescue1 News Editor

Photo Jamie Thompson
Joseph Bonanno Jr., an FDNY veteran and nutritionist, provides cooking demonstrations and samples of tasty, heart-healthy meals.
There's never been more attention on health and wellness in the fire service. And the increased focus was reflected at FDIC.

The issue was the theme of several education sessions and exhibits at the conference, with Sacramento, Calif., Fire Captain Shawn Perry insisting health and wellness programs at departments are making a difference.

During a session at the show, Perry said the problems are both wide-ranging and widespread.

"We over-eat, we over-caffeinate and we under-exercise because a lot of us are busy with other things or recovering from a call," he said.

Perry, a 16-year veteran and an exercise psychologist, outlined a series of ways firefighters can improve their health, beginning with diet.

They included:
• Choose quality over quantity
• Choose dark colors over light colors when it comes to fruit and veg
• Slow down at the dinner table
• Make food a focus not an inconvenience

While wolfing down food at the firehouse — when you never know when the next call will come — is pretty much the norm, Perry said, firefighters should try to change the way they eat when at home.

Eating quickly, he said, means your brain cannot catch up and tell you when you're full.

"When you get home, put the brakes on, go over the speed bumps and slow down," he said. "Don't eat like the bell is going to go off."

Perry said being able to take naps where possible at the firehouse was vital in improving firefighter health and wellness, and criticized chiefs who discouraged the practice.

"Sleep depravation may be one of the most powerful impacts on us today and for our longevity," he said.

If you can take a nap, do so, Perry said.

"And I don't mean sitting in front of your TV," he said. "I mean getting on your back and closing your eyes for 20 or 30 minutes."

The health message was also being delivered during the conference by the NVFC and its Heart-Health Firefighter Program and booth.

Over the course of FDIC, nearly 1,000 firefighters — both career and volunteer — took part in free health screenings, which analyzed their current health status and risk factors.

And Joseph Bonanno Jr., a 21-year veteran of the FDNY and a certified fitness trainer and nutritionist, was on hand to provide cooking demonstrations and samples of tasty, heart-healthy meals.

Maggie Wilson, director of health and safety at the NVFC, said there has been a marked shift in awareness of firefighter health.

"I think there's definitely been a change in the fire service culture toward health issues and I like to think our program has had some part toward it," she said.

The NVFC is hoping to expand its initiative in the coming months by encouraging departments to officially "adopt" the program and train individual members to become program advocates.

"If you can get one person in the department really excited about health and fitness in the department then that's key to getting the whole department involved," Wilson said.

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