Fire Fighter Wellness On and Off Shift

Like a quarterback, a marine or a heart surgeon, our fire fighters must perform at the best of their ability every 911, every time. No one wants to be the receiver, the homeland or the patient in any of these situations when someone is having an “off day”. In order to do so, fire fighters need to practice wellness in the form of good nutrition, adequate rest and stress management both on and off the shift. Reducing near misses, over exertion injuries, heart and respiratory problems, muscle strains and sprains is key to a top performing station.


I had the pleasure of presenting these wellness tips with Kurt Nuffer, full-time fire fighter and EMT from the Kentwood Fire Department on WZZM, My West Michigan and then again with Chef Bryan Nader at the Annual Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union. There’s a lot more work to be done but their hoses have been drawn and their boots are stepping up towards practicing better self-care in and out of the station.  Here are just a few of the tips we shared.

Fire Fighter HydrationMaintaining proper hydration is very important as fire fighters are at high risk for becoming dehydrated during an active fire. The high heat, their heavy suits and long hours can put them at risk for too much water loss. Knowing how to calculate their sweat rate, what it takes to maintain their fluid status within one percent of their body weight by practicing good before, during and after hydration practices is critical. We don’t want them experiencing symptoms of dehydration including fatigue, muscle weakness or cramping and the inability to focus when the stakes are high. They also need to be hydrated enough so that they sweat because that’s the body’s way of cooling itself.  We don’t want them to overheat any more than they do naturally, as a result of the uniform and fire itself. I’ve run over a dozen marathons and my fluid needs don’t even come close to matching theirs during active duty.  This urine test can also be used to measure hydration status.   Their hydration rule of thumb is:

  • Make water your beverage of choice all day long.IMG_7160
  • Drink 16 ounces of fluid on your way to an emergency response.  While this is optimal, I’ve been told it’s very hard to do because there are so many other things to think about and steps to be taken enroute.  So best practice is to be hydrated 24/7 on the clock!IMG_7166
  • Drink 8 oz every 15 minutes or 34 ounces per hour during ground operations.
  • In events lasting >1 hour chose an electrolyte containing drink.
  • Weigh yourself before and after.  Replace fluid with 20-24 ounces for every pound loss.
  • If no water has been consumed during ground operations, aggressively rehydrate with 16 ounces of fluid every 15-20 minutes.

Fluid ChoicesDrink right.  We also know that high fluid intake can result in unwanted weight gain if the fluids are of the wrong variety such as those with too much sugar.  Excess sugar consumption causes inflammation in the body that can lead to arterial damage and bad plaque build up.  I reviewed exactly how much fluid they needed and optimal sources.

Eat right.  Added weight can put unnecessary wear and tear on their IMG_7153joints, slow them down and increase injury rates. It can also increase their risk of heart disease. According to research, 75 percent of fire fighters are overweight or obese and 45 percent of on the job deaths is due to heart attacks.  Learning effective ways to deal with weight gain culprits including odd shifts, compromised sleep, on the job stress, not building in time to exercise and liquid calories is important.

Eating for sustained energy but not so much that it slows you down is also key to optimal performance. We know that anything in the stomach at the time of an emergency, pretty much stays in the stomach as the bodies efforts are redirected towards muscle so small, frequent meals are on the menu.  Restaurant, take out and drive through windows are off the menu. Chef Bryan and I provided a healthy grocery list, ingredients for stocking a perfect pantry and scratch recipes that can be made cost effectively, quickly and don’t require a chef’s degree.


Click to View WZZM Segment with Kentwood Fire Fighter Kurt Nuffer

The week’s menu was a blend of the heart healthy Mediterranean Diet and the DASH, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension Diet. Both focus on monounsaturated rich foods that help reduce LDL cholesterol and antioxidants rich foods (fruits, vegetables,herbs and spices) that help reduce inflammation, make blood vessels more elastic and fight free radicals that are caused by smoke inhalation that cause cellular damage. The DASH diet focuses a little bit more on replacing salt with herbs and spices and avoiding excess sugar that causes arterial inflammation.  The fire house we visited has a well stocked spice cabinet but some very salty cupboards too!








Consuming five fruits and vegetables a day and two servings of low-fat dairy is important for potassium which helps regulate blood pressure and prevents muscle cramps. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are rich in fiber, which helps lower LDL cholesterol and keep fire men and women feeling fuller longer making healthy weight management easier.  Omega-3 rich salmon, turkey based chili and burritos, potassium rich smoothies, crock pot blueberry muffin oatmeal and homemade energy bars are all on the menu.

Other wellness tips will included:

  • Healthy snack ideas for sustainedSnacks energy so they don’t have a sugar crash.
  • Managing stress in productive ways so they don’t medicate with nicotine, alcohol, food or other ways that are detrimental to physical and emotional health.
  • Adequate rest to reduce their risk for diabetes, heart disease, weight gain and reduce errors. IMG_7195
  • Adequate exercise during on the job downtime. Being able to work out to enhance endurance and strength but not cause fatigue in case a call comes in not only improves physical health but helps reduce stress and enhance sleep.

Fun fire station facts:

  • They work 9, 24 hour days per month.
  • $8 is alloted per person pre meal.
  • Heart disease is their number one cause of death in the field.
  • Many are EMT’s in addition to Fire Fighters.
  • Stress is a given, it’s always there and always will be.  It needs to be channeled in healthy productive ways in both the fire station and after duty, in their homes.

They take such great care of us, now it’s time for them to practice better self-care, don’t you agree?

Categories: Nutrition & Wellness

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