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Leadership Matters in Firefighter Health and Wellness

By: Dan Kerrigan

(Updated February 22, 2016)

There are no valid excuses for avoiding firefighter health and wellness.  None.

Whether the subject is medical evaluations, physical fitness, behavioral health, or overall nutrition and lifestyle, I have yet to meet anyone that can convince me that firefighter health and wellness is not a vital yet often overlooked risk reduction component in our profession – one that affects everything else we do and all of the people in our lives.

Here’s your latest proof: From Firefighter to Fire Chief: Hard Truths Everyone Needs to Know.

As of February 22, 2016, according to the United States Fire Administration (USFA), there have been 10 LODDs in 2016.

Seven of the 10 LODDs appear to be health-related.


Annually, we see an average of around 50% of our LODDs blamed on health related factors?   Why?   Can’t we do any better?

Fitness Complacency

My good friend John Dixon tells us that complacency can kill, and I couldn’t agree more. But many in the fire service narrowly relate complacency directly to the fire ground.  Why is that?  Have you ever considered that health complacency kills more of us every year than any other LODD category?

A firefighter’s risk of heart attack is 300% greater than any other population. Several factors influence this statistic, including but not limited to: Your overall personal fitness level, medical conditions (known and unknown), and work related stressors that often take our bodies well beyond “normal” work capacities.  Add to this any family history you may have, and it should be easy to see why we have to start taking better care of ourselves. Yet, as a service, we continue to struggle with turning the tide of health-related LODDs.  Is it a question of responsibility?  Poor commitment?  Lack of education?  Who bears this responsibility?  If you ask me, it’s everyone’s job to fight this battle, and it requires leadership and unity from all levels – from the rookie to the chief and everyone in between.

Leading is a Team Effort

As much as health and wellness is a personal issue, it must be advocated for, supported by, and promoted through fire department leadership; otherwise, those excuses we all hear from time to time become easier to digest. To be blunt: until health and wellness is viewed and promoted as a requirement of the job, we’ll continue to struggle with reducing the LODDs we suffer annually.  While I understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, that in and of itself is no excuse for failure to address the issue.

That’s where leadership comes in.

How does leadership relate to health and wellness?  First let’s consider these questions:  What is a leader?  Moreover, who is a leader?  My take is that leaders are individuals that display certain characteristics and personal traits – they are not necessarily chiefs or even line officers.  Leaders are individuals that are able to motivate, not just direct.  They demonstrate, not dictate.  Leaders must truly live by that old adage, “well done is better than well said”.  They must be willing to take risks and make people feel uncomfortable from time to time in order to influence improvement (not just change) on a personal and organizational level. Leaders, above all else, are also very good followers and listeners.  When it comes to health and wellness, the importance of these leadership characteristics cannot be overstated.

Chief Joe Kitchen has written that the true meaning of becoming a leader in the fire service without holding an official rank.  One of the things he suggests in order to demonstrate leadership is to take on a project, and I couldn’t agree more.  When it comes to firefighter health and wellness, there are leadership opportunities for the firefighter right on up to the fire chief.  I happen to believe that every fire department has a “champion”.  This person is the one that will motivate others to take better care of themselves and will demonstrate it in their own actions.  This person will understand the personal nature of one’s level of health and wellness but will also apply gentle, positive peer pressure and offer support, enthusiasm, and encouragement to others as we all work to make our profession and our people healthier.

Leadership is as much about attitude as it is action. There are not many professions that can say they have more passion and commitment for what they do than us.  But take a look in the mirror – is your attitude about health and wellness the same as your fire ground attitude?  Every week I receive emails, social media messages, texts, phone calls, and face-to-face communications about health and wellness success stories on both the personal and organizational level from across the country and across the world.  These stories are coming from leaders with commitment and the right attitude.


The momentum is real; it’s palpable – but we need more help. You can all be leaders in the movement to become a healthier fire service. So, whether you are the champion that takes on the project, the chief that decides that fitness and wellness is more important than gold leaf and fancy lighting packages, or that firefighter in between that sees and demonstrates the true benefits of being fit for duty, you are all part of the solution, a solution that requires all of us, working together to make the health-related LODDs the exception, not the rule.


Dan Kerrigan is co-author of Firefighter Functional Fitness: The Essential Guide to Optimal Fire Ground Performance and Assistant Fire Marshal, East Whiteland Fire Department (PA). With over 29 years in the fire service, he is a passionate advocate for firefighter health and fitness and regularly researches, presents and is published on firefighter fitness, health & wellness.

He is the Director of The First Twenty’s Firefighter Functional Training Advisory Panel and works closely with the IAFC, NFFF, and NVFC on strategies to improve fitness and reduce health-related LODDs in the fire service.  He is a contributor to Firefighter Toolbox, Fire Engineering Magazine, Firehouse Magazine, Hooks and Hooligans, IAFC, Fire Department Concepts, NVFC, and the IAEM.  

Dan is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master’s Degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership. He is a PA State Fire Academy Suppression Level Instructor as well as an adjunct professor at Anna Maria College, Neumann University, and Immaculata University.  Dan was the 2014 recipient of the IAFC-VCOS Emerging Leader Scholarship sponsored by Dr. Richard Gasaway.  

Connect with Dan on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter (@dankerrigan911) and FirefighterFunctionalFitness.com