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Focus on Fitness 2012: Firefighter wellness

You’re fit and trim, strong and flexible. You’ve been focusing on core fitness, managing your cholesterol and getting plenty of REM sleep.

September 7, 2012
By Peter Sells

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You’re fit and trim, strong and flexible. You’ve been focusing on core fitness, managing your cholesterol and getting plenty of REM sleep. Your body is healthy and ready, but you are more than just a body, you are a whole person. I would like to take the conversation about firefighter wellness above and beyond – above the neck and beyond the immediate working world. 

Dedicating your life to fire fighting and rescue work is a very personal and noble commitment. Many firefighters find a link between their personal faith and their professional calling. The tenets of every faith include service to the community and giving of one’s self for the greater good. The concepts of heroism, bravery in the face of personal risk, even self-sacrifice – all are common to religious faith and to fire fighting.

Choosing such a career or dedicating personal time and resources as a volunteer is a real-world way of answering the other-worldly demands of one’s faith. Finding spiritual meaning in your work can both deepen your faith and help get you through the ugly, dark times that we all must face on occasion. So let’s explore how various faiths view and support a firefighting career, and how spiritual wellness can be part of your overall readiness to act.

As a rookie firefighter in 1987 attending the first of too many line-of-duty funerals, in this case for rescue squad Capt. Donald Babineau, who had been killed in a training accident, I dutifully marched, saluted and stood at attention as I was told to. As I sat in the back of the church along with as many firefighters as would fit, the padre spoke about the captain’s dedication to his career and his pride in serving on one of the Toronto Fire Department’s elite rescue squads. After a poignant pause for effect, he continued with, “Jesus was a rescuer.”

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At that point I rolled my eyes and thought to myself, “Is he serious?” As a young, know-it-all, cynical atheist, I thought the point being made was a cheap and gratuitous attempt to put a religious spin on a real man’s life. I’m twice as old now as I was then, and even though I believe in the non-existence of any god, time, experience and a growing respect for the roles of faith in society have led me to understand what was being said in the proper context: a parallel was being drawn between the service and sacrifice of a firefighter and the service of Christ to mankind through martyrdom. By choosing his career and ultimately losing his life, Capt. Babineau was serving not only his community but his Lord and Saviour. That was the point, and I can recognize its validity even as I reject its veracity.

Over the course of my career I met many hundreds of firefighters who were and are openly devote Christians of many denominations: Catholics, Anglicans, Mormons, Baptists, Presbyterians – all hold their faith sincerely and all are deserving of more respect than I felt in my heart at that funeral long ago. Fellowships, societies and fraternal organizations of Christian firefighters abound across North America and they are all there primarily to support firefighters and their families through shared faith.

 Christian symbolism pervades the fire service in the western world, through the ubiquitous Maltese Cross with its origins in the Crusades, or the reciting of the Firefighter’s Prayer at recruit graduations, but of course we have firefighters of all faiths in our midst. I received a phone call from a Jewish friend one day last winter, inviting me to a breakfast lecture at his synagogue. Focusing on the word breakfast, I accepted. He explained that the lecture was to be given by a female Jewish firefighter about her career. “Is her name Adina Kaufman?” I asked, to which my friend replied “How did you know that?” Well, although there are a significant number of female firefighters in Toronto, there are very few of them whom I did not train, either in service or as recruits.  And only one of those is a redheaded, smiling Jewish dynamo – you don’t forget people like Adina. Her lecture was called, almost as you would expect, “What’s a Nice Jewish Girl Doing on a Fire Truck?” 

Rhetorically, Kaufman posed the question, “What is social action in a Jewish context?”  She went on to describe the concept of Tikun Olam, humanity’s shared responsibility (with God) to heal, repair and transform the world. “It’s about the Jewish values of Tzedak, or justice; Chesed, kindness or helping others; and Aryevut, or social responsibility.” Kaufman explained, “We are obligated to give or to act, because need exists.”  She quoted Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel who said, “The opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference.”

The life lessons Kaufman was promoting are found in this excerpt she shared of a sermon by Toronto Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich; “Who is the most mighty, the most heroic, and the most valiant in human life? It is the person who finds strength in what they can take from themselves, not in what others can give to them. It is the person who finds their courage from what they are, and not from what others think they are.”

Kaufman has taken the core values of her faith and put them into action through her career as a firefighter, as well as in her volunteerism with worldwide relief agencies. She would blush to hear this, but she’s a hero of mine – at or near the top of a short list. She personifies what I am advocating here: seek the harmony that can exist between your personal faith and your fire-fighting self. If you don’t find harmony, work to create it.

It is impossible, or at least incomplete, to examine Christianity and Judaism without including Islam in the discussion. The three Abrahamic faiths share a common history as well as a common deity. So I put the question to my colleague and former student, Mohammed Al Ahmadi.

Since training with me at the Toronto Fire Academy 14 years ago, Al Ahmadi’s career has flourished. He is currently the chief officer of the emergency services protecting the properties of the Dubai Electric and Water Authority.  He also operates 911 Firefighting, a growing company providing fire protection technology services, training, consulting and supply. I asked him how his Muslim faith supports a firefighting career, and vice versa. 

“There is a word in Arabic, chief,” he explained, “which has many meanings. The word is “shahada”. When you die doing something brave – rescuing someone from a fire or saving someone from drowning, you go to heaven without question. This is shahada.”

I asked if this was the same as martyrdom, as if someone died defending their town or gave their life to save others. “Yes, that is shahada,” he said, “but shahada can also mean certificate, or testimony, anything that means something or someone is being true and honest.” 

He explained that public-service jobs in which people give of themselves to help others – firefighters, police, soldiers, doctors, or any form of volunteerism – are highly regarded in Islamic society. 

“When you put your work in front of you, you are dealing with a person – a customer, a business partner, someone you are trying to save, anyone of any religion – but there is someone between you and your work, and that is God. Everything is connected. God knows if you are doing your work for people to admire you for how strong you are, or if you are doing it for God and because it is shahada.”

This conversation blew me away, and I hope I am doing the concept justice. Shahada has one other particularly important meaning in Arabic, which shows how central it is to Islam: the shahada is the Muslim declaration of belief in the oneness of God, without suspicion, and the acceptance of the prophet Mohammed as God’s messenger. A common English form of the Islamic creed is “There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his messenger.”

Just as John 3:16  – For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life – is the primary tenet of Christianity, the shahada is the central message of Islam. What I learned from Al Ahmadi is that the shahada is tied culturally and linguistically to concepts of fidelity, sacrifice, service and professionalism that resonate throughout the fire service.

Community service is also an integral part of Sikhism. The Punjabi word Seva refers to selfless service for altruistic purposes on behalf of, and for the betterment of a community. The langar, a free community kitchen found at every gurdwara, or Sikh temple, and open to people of all religions is one expression of this community service.  Sikhs will also set up a langar during community festivals and celebrations. The longest lines on Canada Day in Mississauga or Brampton, Ont., are often for the amazing vegetarian food being served for free at the langar.
Seva is a means to promote humility and demote egoism which is a fundamental principle of Sikhism. A sevadar is one who performs seva through philanthropic, voluntary, selfless, service. Sikh sevadars perform many kinds of voluntary service – caring for every aspect of the temple and kitchen. Seva is also performed outside of the temple setting on behalf the community. International Sikh aid organizations perform seva for communities needing relief due to a natural disasters. It is not difficult to imagine that a devout Sikh could emulate the principles of seva through fire fighting.

I’ve only scratched the surface here. Ganesha, the four-armed, elephant-headed Hindu god is worshipped as the Lord of Obstacles. He guides his followers to the righteous path and places obstacles in the way of those who stray. His depictions vary widely, but he is often shown holding objects symbolizing charity, integrity, wisdom and community.  He is almost always shown with one tusk broken, which is sometimes interpreted as giving of himself – especially when he holds out his broken tusk in one hand. 

Self-sacrifice as expressed in the bodhisattva ideal is the basis of Buddhism. “May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings?” 

In practice, the bodhisattva vow means that one vows not just to attain Nirvana, but to postpone enjoying that enlightenment fully until all other beings too have also reached liberation. We all know firefighters who would just as likely say “I’ve attained Nirvana, sucks to be you,” but they would neither be true Buddhists nor true firefighters.

Explore your faith; read, study, pray and learn all you can. You’ve got the rest of your life. Find a state of harmony between your beliefs and how you live your material life.  While you’re at it, learn about the other people around you. They may worship your god differently, or worship different gods, or not worship any god at all. I can guarantee that you all have things to learn from each other – about life, about the universe, and about being a better firefighter the next time the bell rings.

Most importantly, a Sikh langar is a great place to snag a really tasty vegetable samosa. After all, a firefighter’s gotta eat, right? Live life, stay safe, and go back for seconds.


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada Branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com


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