Fire Fighting in Canada

Tools of the Trade: October 2016

Any quality fitness and wellness coach knows there is both an art and a science to guiding the wellness of others. The science is extensive and includes nutritional concepts or exercise physiology, but the art, that’s the human side.

September 21, 2016 
By Sean Kingswell

As important as the science is, the art entails possibly the most challenging elements of long-term wellness: adherence and compliance. Compliance is properly following the steps of a good wellness plan and adherence is sticking with it over time.

These elements are absent either because the person is unaware he or she is making poor wellness choices, or, in most cases, the person knows what he or she should be doing, but is simply unable to see it through. In addition, those who are already fit may have an it-won’t-happen-to-me attitude about wellness deterioration. The reality is that life is an evolution with many hurdles and a decline can happen to many unsuspecting and well-intended firefighters. The difference between a lack of adherence and compliance for civilians and firefighters is the consequences. For firefighters, wellness affects performance and is truly life or death, impacting both their crews and their families.

So how do firefighters improve or maintain adherence and compliance? First, we need to understand the depth of firefighter wellness, which is multifaceted and interwoven. Wellness includes fitness, nutrition, sleep, injury prevention, rest and recovery, stress management, flexibility, cardio and cancer prevention.

Next, look at the aim and magnitude of personal effort, which is represented as motivation. There are both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators to wellness. Intrinsic motivators come from within the individual and for a firefighter can be health, family, performance for crew, performance for customers, life safety and professionalism. Setting an example by modelling for newer firefighters while inspiring others can also motivate. Extrinsic motivators generally come from outside the individual and can include praise or financial rewards, which may not always be as realistic in the public sector. My advice to any firefighter is to make wellness a career-long personal expectation and commitment while continually developing positive and successful habits. You would, of course, keep up your medical or extrication skills, so why not everyday fitness and wellness?


There are many possible strategies when it comes to adherence. A wellness plan, especially for firefighters, needs to be meaningful as well as balanced. An unhealthy level of rigidity can prevent long-term success, and dwelling on small setbacks is never helpful. One strategy is creating extrinsic motivators in the form of rewards, which should not always be food. Social support can also increase adherence. Create a team of advocates by speaking with those in your life about the importance of wellness for firefighters and your strategies. Pre-planning can be as important in firefighter wellness as it is in fire fighting. Plan workouts in advance, prepare food and fit sleep into your schedule. Documenting and journaling have been shown to improve adherence and play an active role in systematic progression. Firefighters should use fire-hall downtime effectively by exercising or enacting other wellness concepts at the appropriate level, and balance their wellness during off time; remember that being active is not the same as exercising. Developing a personal ethos can be a constant reminder of individual values, which are your choices that guide your day-to-day actions and influence decisions. Follow and embrace wellness initiatives in your municipality, whether they are employer driven or self-directed.

Buy-in was the action step in my first column of this series in the April issue of Canadian Firefighter, which involved understanding the importance of different facets of firefighter wellness and performing a personal inventory on each. The action step for this column is considering compliance strategies as well as goal setting. Set timeframes for both short- and long-term goals, and be sure to look at the different facets of wellness beyond just aesthetics or fitness. It is important, however, not to set too many goals at once. Goals need to be written down and verbalized to a few friends, colleagues or family members in order to improve their effectiveness. In selecting goals make sure you are focused on the specific scope of each element and determine a metric for success; consider your role as a firefighter and as an individual and be sure the goals are reasonable. The greatest firefighting strategies are only effective if executed properly at the task level. The same applies to firefighter wellness; a plan is needed but equally important is that it is effectively followed and maintained. The difference is that a fire may be out in minutes or hours while the passion for firefighter wellness should burn for a whole career.

Sean Kingswell is an experienced professional firefighter, personal trainer, fitness coach and the creator of the FIRESAFECADETS program.  @firesafecadets

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