FireFit: a sociological view (work in progress)
Comments are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org and these will lead to a constant updating of this piece (last updated at 1100 4-9-14).
FireFit the interim report available here
As firefighters get older they suffer more ‘injuries’ to their bodies, which they defend by reducing fitness regimes and taking medication, which in turn leads them to getting heavier.
In particular previous job specific pension arrangements took on board the fact that bodies wear out when people stay ‘match fit’ for 30 years.
Firefighters culture is closely associated with their desire to do their best for the public, their fight for perfection in the operational makes them extremely self-critical of their work and in turn this leads to a personality that will be critical of everything: this is not a negative and is unlikely to impair their well-being and enhances the service they provide to the public.
Seeing UK firefighters as more overweight or obese has not been correlated to data to show an increase in heart problems.
I was a firefighter for over 30 years and then became an academic and read for a PhD on firefighter’s culture. My studies are sociological, specifically qualitative and focus around formal and informal culture and gender in the fire service. As someone who has no academic knowledge in the physical sciences I am impressed by the interim Fire Fit report. However, I would like to raise the following social arguments which have not been considered.
My data tells me that firefighters join the fire service with a level of fitness that they maintain through personal fitness programs and the work they do. As they grow older, as with many people who are ‘match fit’ all the time and inevitably suffer knocks, parts of their bodies are subject to wear and tear. Bad backs and knees develop often exacerbated through arthritis. That is why athletes, particularly footballers are young. I guess this is largely unavoidable - as a consequence firefighters will protect their ‘injuries’ and fitness reduces and weight and waste measurements increase.
To an extent experience compensates for reduced fitness and older firefighters are still able to do their work. I would expect this to be reflected in the data assembled for the report and it should be possible to tease it out: although some qualitative research with this as a focus may add to the findings.
Some people of course are able to maintain fitness levels into old age but I expect the numbers who are able to do this reduces proportionately with age (I would also expect this can also be found in the data). I suppose what I am saying is that being fit and doing a very physical job takes its toll, which in turn is likely to result in more weight and larger wastebands as firefighters get older.
Working against older firefighters is the fact that they work in time critical circumstances and alongside younger fitter models of themselves. This can require them to work harder than they may want to (to both get the job done and to prove they can keep up). In turn this is likely to increase the damage to their bodies with the resulting outcome that they have to reduce their fitness regimes, take more anti-inflammatories and the spiral continues. Again in simple terms, I would say this is inevitable and is something that was recognised in a pension scheme designed specifically for the firefighter. Senior Officers have always retired later and they may be fit but they do not take the knocks nor suffer the extremes of firefighting.
It may also be of interest when further research takes place to identify how many firefighters routinely use some form of medical intervention to enable them to continue to do their work.
From my research I may suggest that there is a need to be wary of deaths recorded for heart failure in the US. Firefighters there are often volunteers and many of these regularly work into their seventies in what is a boys club as much as an emergency service, which in turn is likely to result in what are high numbers of firefighter deaths from sudden over-exertion.
Statistics showing firefighters as more obese than the general population has not been shown to produce a greater incidence of heart problems and perhaps this needs to be explained. From this distance I cannot recall any, firefighters in the UK dying at fires from heart failure, although there was recently a firefighter who died I believe on return to the station and this may be related.
The FireFit report also puts some store around what I would term the decrease in job satisfaction and related stress that may occur in firefighters as they get older. This is recognised in terms such as ‘Measures of well-being suggested that individuals at higher risk of chronic disease were also likely to exhibit more adverse mood states, fewer positive mood states and lower life satisfaction’ and ‘physical activity … and well-being markers in operational firefighters alone tend to reduce with age’. I would suggest a social explanation for this that the hard science approach misses.
First, I would suggest that elder firefighters who have given a lifetime of public service are not carried along by the employer’s argument of efficiency and moaning is a relief valve to the way they see their service as being depleted and how a lack of resources is reducing their ability to do their job. They will though, despite their apparent negativity, always step up to the plate and do their job.
Second, I would suggest that potentially appearing as dissatisfied is an outcome of firefighters cultural arrangements. Firefighters are not in practice negative; they may appear so when talking, but this is cultural and the fire service remains a ‘can do’ service. What appears as negative to the hard scientist is a social arrangement through which firefighters constantly critique their ways of working and reflect on the fires that they have attended in order to improve their firefighting skills. This is a type of informal ongoing everlasting but nonetheless important debrief: a form of post-mortems around the mess table. Constant and ongoing informal debriefing improves and shares firefighters’ skills. In a profession that is largely experiential and reflexive, constant discussion and talking is a feature of their work and the wa by which firefighting skills are handed onto the next generation.
This way of working and talking almost inevitably extends through socialization to define firefighters approach to life. It also forms/influences firefightes' ways of understanding the world, in what they would call their family that is the fire service. In turn this leads to (and has always led to) them taking a critical view of their employers and working environments, which can often be seen as moaning. This informal cultural arrangement is in the hands of older firefighters who are more likely to be ‘outspoken,’ whilst younger members of the team are not afforded so much space to talk and express views. In what appears as a lesser mood state is in part of a cultural arrangement arranged for the betterment of the service. Awareness of problems that leads to a heightened challenge is not necassarily negative and could be seen as a positive state of mind - seeing this as negative in outcome could skew data.
This interim FireFit report is excellent in providing an objective outcome pointing towards fatter firefighters in old age, that moan a lot as if this is something that can be avoided (and potentially leading to heart failure although there is no substantive data on this). However, cultural arrangements and fitness regimes are inevitably age related. Being ‘match fit’ for so long leads to a situation whereby almost every firefighter aged over 40 is covering an injury, using medication and also physical interventions. This is sustainable to a certain age, because skills compensate for fitness, and the simple wearing out of their bodies was reflected in a pension scheme that kicked in at 50-55. Changes that force firefighters to work until they get older are inevitably going to lead to more and more firefighters leaving due to failure in competency arrangements that according to this report appear as firefighter’s fault. This is a subjective view that a social science explanation challenges.
Firefighters are not stupid and they are part of/led by a culture that will inevitably adapt to a point where firefighters will consider what they have never done before, to be less aggressive in their firefighting. Firefighters will also protect their bodies by lowering their own fitness regimes so as not to be ‘match fit’ all the time. Fire losses and fire deaths will increase and this will spiral as dedication to their service and the public reduces. In outcome the fire service will increasingly becomes just another job: a young person’s job. The consequences are that fire service will not be a job for life and in a profession where experience is essential this is another negative for service delivery.
Dr Dave Baigent FIFireE, FHEA, BA Hons., PhD
Older here is in terms of the people that they work with and probably starts to be important at 40 plus