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  • Writer's pictureRachelle Zemlok, PsyD


As the wife of a firefighter and sister to multiple law enforcement officers I know how helpless it can feel when it comes to my family’s safety. I’ve had to learn how to let go of all control and hope for the best like every other first responder family member. My husband has chosen to dedicate his life to a profession that requires him to run towards dangerous situations in order to help others. From the outside, it can look like my role as the spouse ends at staying strong and hoping he always returns home from his shift.

Statistics show us that we can actually take on a much larger role when it comes to their chances of being safe on the job. Though we don’t know the first thing about how to keep them safe on scene… we can be the first line of defense when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle.

Did you know that approximately 45% of line of duty deaths for firefighters are actually cardiac related events!? That is by far the leading cause of on-duty fatalities. Their calls include intense physical exertion, heavy tools and gear, heat, noise, dehydration, paired along with psychologically stressful situations. As you can imagine, this combination leads to significant cardiovascular strain. When these fatal cardiac events in firefighters occur the individual often shows risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as:

  • Family History

  • Hypertension

  • Being overweight

  • Diabetes

  • Physical inactivity

  • Smoking

  • Poor diet

  • Poor sleep (quantity or quality)

  • Elevated Stress

Obviously so many of these risks have more to do with our firefighter’s ongoing lifestyle versus their actual job training. Of course, most departments actively encourage physical fitness routines and allow space for it to happen. However, we know the department can only do so much to impact an individual's general lifestyle choices. The department can send out emails about health and wellness and require physicals, but I know good and well what needs to happen at home in order to make adequate space for healthy living. So much of being in a first responder family is about letting go of the control and accepting what’s given to us (shift schedules, mandatory force backs, holidays missed etc). In this situation though, we can be a greater influence on our firefighter’s safety than the administration they work for because we do the grocery shopping for meals, we run the family schedule, we set goals together, we are the ones reminding them to make a doctor’s appointment, we choose whether we are going to bed early or watching T.V. together, and we choose whether the family activity is a hike or going to the movies.

Think about that, we have the opportunity here to decrease their chances of the leading cause of this career’s line of duty death. Only we know what type of honest talks might need to happen at home to suddenly make their health a bigger priority. Go down that list again and think about where you can start. Is it starting to track how far behind they are on sleep and thinking about where in the family schedule we can add more room for it in there? Could it be helping them set some physical fitness goals and talking about when they can fit those in? Or should you start with reviewing weekly meal planning and taking on some healthier choices.

Often times those drawn to the profession really value health and fitness and tend to start their career in their peak physical fitness to make it through that academy. We all know many things in life can get in the way of staying on that course long term. Good news is they don't usually need to be convinced it's important, but they likely will need your help finding time and motivation. It’s never too late to get things back on track, It’s worth starting that process today!

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