EMS: Public Safety’s Chubby Little Brother

(Originally written for “Culture Changers” DT4EMS Website)

My title may have made you mad. My intention was to get your attention with the hopes that you’ll hear me out with an open mind.
I was both honored and flattered when Kip (Tietsort) asked me if I’d like to write some pieces on fitness for the Culture Changer’s website. As someone with an opinion on things I’m passionate about I’m also always ready to share thoughts which come to mind.

I’ve been involved in EMS since the mid 1980’s. I started out as a volunteer firefighter/EMT. Then I became a Nationally Registered Paramedic in 1985 and worked for various private and hospital based ambulance services while simultaneously working as a Firefighter/Paramedic before “retiring” my Paramedic numbers a few years ago and returning to the EMT-Intermediate level.

I’ve been pondering how to write this first piece in a way that doesn’t alienate everyone from a strictly EMS background who is reading this and I’ll put it as gently as I can but some of you may tune me out as a contributor right out of the gate. It is what it is. Over my years, from a fitness standpoint, I’ve noticed one thing with regard to EMS and that’s this; of three areas which make up Public Safety; EMS, Fire, and Police, EMS workers, hands down, are in the worst shape. Fitness standards for fire and police are notoriously low and need improvement, but there is more morbid obesity in EMS as a general rule than fire or police. Be honest, you know it’s true.

Why is this? I think one reason may be that EMS is the baby brother of the other two branches of public safety. Law enforcement has been around forever and the fire service has a tradition of at least a few hundred years but EMS has only been around since the 1970’s.
Another reason may be that EMS functions, while physical, are not generally highly intense physically. By that I mean Paramedics don’t usually anticipate breaking into a sprint on duty, or needing to run several flights of stairs carrying their stretcher in turnout gear and breathing apparatus.

You know what makes me mad though? EMS workers deserve better. If you’re out of shape or over weight, or morbidly obese you owe it to yourself and those who love you to take better care of yourself. And there are people on the streets counting on you to perform, perform physically, just like the cop and just like the hose dragger. We are seeing fire and police more and more as “occupational athletes” and “tactical athletes” and we are. Are you less because you ride an ambulance instead of a fire engine or police cruiser? Hardly. You’re called on to perform just the same.

Look, I mentioned two potential reasons for the rampant obesity in EMS; the comparatively recent birth of EMS into the public safety family (which likely has a correspondingly delayed recognition of the need for physical fitness standards) and the lack of frequent highly physically intense activities while riding the box.

How do we begin to correct the problem then? First of all, see yourself as the tactical athlete that you are. EMS workers need strength, probably more day in and day out than firefighters or police officers. You also need flexibility if you’re going to reduce your risk of strains and sprains from lifting heavy patients. You need endurance and cardiovascular conditioning if you’re going to carry equipment up several flights of stairs and then be able to work an arrest. And you need all of these things and a survival mindset if you’re expecting to escape violent encounters on the scene when you’re faced with them.

I’m not slamming EMS workers in the least. I’m one of you. I’ve got a lot of love for EMS. I understand sleep deprivation, inter-hospital transfers, nursing home calls, coroner runs, 911 calls…I feel you. I’m simply saying that you deserve better. Your employers owe it to you and you owe it to yourselves.

I hope I haven’t hacked all the EMT’s and Paramedics off with this first piece so badly that as soon as you see then next one I write you immediately log off your laptop, but I had to say what has been obvious for so long and if someone doesn’t say it then the blinders stay on and nothing changes.

You’re part of the family now and you deserve a focus on your health and fitness too.

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