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High-risk hobbies: First responder safety off the job

Firefighters, EMS providers, police and other public safety workers often pursue relatively risky pastimes that can impact their work as well as their families

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“Should people with high-risk careers further put themselves in harm’s way with physically dangerous activities or sports? Should an employer have the right to limit the off-duty activities of their employees, union members or not?”

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We understand and accept that first responders will take risks. It’s part of the job. I saw it in my own career in law enforcement, and I saw the same thing with my husband, a retired firefighter. These days, I see it in my son, who followed his father into the fire service. One of the reasons we train so much for our jobs is to increase first responder safety. Off the job, though, firefighters, police officers and other public safety workers often pursue relatively risky pastimes that can impact their work as well as their families.

Which raises the question: Is that a good thing?

“Competing for Time, Not for the Podium”

Kyle was always my athletic and muscular child. His love for all things on wheels is second only to his admiration for his father’s firefighting career. He rode mountain bikes, jumped skateboards and raced motorcycles. He also had the injuries to prove his passion — including two broken front teeth.

A few weekends ago, Kyle competed in the Virginia City Grand Prix, a four-hour motorcycle race held in the desert ghost town of Virginia City, Nevada. Kyle had entered this race twice before, but he didn’t finish either time. That wasn’t because of any lack of skill or determination. Thanks to a generous helping of (over-) confidence, his previous tries on the course had ended in a crash with a shoulder injury, and an out-of-gas, broken motorcycle.

Of course, those two previous race attempts represented a younger version of Kyle. Back then, he was single and working construction, with no real financial commitments. For this latest go-around in the sage brush and desert sand, he was a 28-year-old husband with two boys under two years old and a job as a firefighter.

Kyle asked me to help on his pit crew, but I elected to sit this one out. I just wasn’t willing to watch as my son’s potential livelihood hung on the precipice of another motorcycle accident. This time, if he broke his arm, smashed his knee — or worse yet, injured his spine — the future and security of his family and career was in jeopardy. His wife shared my concern. Kyle stressed to her that living life with all the dangers and thrills was part of the package. He also promised us both he would ride as safe as possible. He was competing for time, not for the podium.

The Accident

Just after the race started, I got the text message. There’d been an accident. I should’ve been shocked, but instead, I was awestruck that I’d predicted the outcome.

I got the details later. Right at the start of the race, Kyle had been caught up in a group that ran off the trail and went down hard. He managed to lift the bike and ride another seven miles, but eventually tapped out due to pain in his shoulder and difficulty breathing. So off to the hospital they went: a wincing Kyle, his very upset spouse and their two babies.

The Aftermath

Back at home, as I pondered the mishap between frustrated phone calls, I found myself in a debate with other friends about first responder safety. Should people with high-risk careers further put themselves in harm’s way with physically dangerous activities or sports? Should an employer have the right to limit the off-duty activities of their employees, union members or not? And should those in public safety weigh their desire to have living-on-the-edge experiences against the fears of their loved ones and coworkers?

Of course, should is a very subjective term. In Kyle’s mind, he should be able to race a dirt bike through the high desert. It’s something he enjoys, and he’s actually quite good at it. He should be able compete and conquer the race that had escaped him twice before. He knew he was a good rider and wanted to see how he stacked up against the competition. He should have a chance for his boys to grow up knowing their dad was fearless and driven and passionate about adventure.

However, his family and coworkers might have a different point of view. With Kyle injured, vacations would now be canceled for some of those on his team, and being forced to work is never a welcome thing. From his wife’s perspective, choosing to participate in a dangerous sport was not a wise choice. After all, volunteering to be one of hundreds of riders hurtling toward the bottleneck at the trailhead increased the odds of injury.

Others insisted that Kyle’s behavior was not reckless. After all, he wore protective gear and was not even going at a high speed when he was run off the road and into a ditch by other riders. This accident was a fluke — a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could’ve happened to anyone racing a screaming two-stroke.

Who Owes What to Whom?

The hardest question to answer, as I took my very unofficial poll of current and retired first responder friends and family, was whether the employer had any right to make policy that would limit the off-duty activities of their employees in any fashion. After all, I have first-hand knowledge of several police departments that have banned the use of tobacco products for all employees, citing increased medical costs and thus higher health insurance premiums for all department members. Isn’t dirt-bike racing just as risky — and just as preventable?

Another difficult question: Do first responders have an obligation to anyone (their families, their employers, their coworkers, even themselves) to avoid taking unnecessary risks, given the dangers they already face in their jobs? Considering the types of personalities who are drawn to public safety vocations, I would guess that injuries incurred while playing sports, participating in hobbies, or vacation thrill-seeking must be high.

As we discussed first responder safety, one person brought up the fact that many professional athletes have clauses in their contracts prohibiting them from going skydiving, bungee jumping, and other risky endeavors. I would not be surprised to learn of a fire department that also included this type of language in their employment agreements. After all, the employer has a vested interest in the health and longevity of their workforce.

First Responder Safety vs. Well-being

The whole point of this debate comes down to quality of life. If you’ve ever heard Dr. Kevin Gilmartin speak (or if you’ve read his fantastic book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement), you might recall his discussion about police officers who lose themselves in cop life. This holds true for all public safety employees, including emergency medical technicians, corrections and probation officers, and firefighters. In Gilmartin’s examples, an individual had interests and activities outside of the job that brought them happiness. Maybe they found joy in coaching kids’ soccer or downhill skiing or playing in a garage band. But once they became a public servant, they began to experience less fulfillment in the things they used to enjoy. Their lives narrowly focused on “cop talk” or picking up extra shifts and less on the things in the world that make for a healthy soul.

A long and mentally healthy career in public safety requires a balanced approach to risk and reward. Eliminating all the fun you used to experience can take you to a negative and lonely place. Keeping the dirt bike riding or the recreation league rugby as an outlet for stress and to stay mentally sharp is important.

Going back to Kyle, does he owe it to his family and department to stay healthy and able to show up for a call? Probably. But maybe — just maybe — he also owes it to himself to have a healthy outlet to cut loose and experience a bit of off-the-job adrenaline once in a while. Ultimately, this is something for him and his wife to decide.

A Well-Balanced Life

Nobody is saying that bungee jumping, off-roading and mixed martial arts competitions are not, on some level, unhealthy activities. After all, they do increase the risk of a serious, career-ending injury. I have a close friend in law enforcement who was thrown from a horse on her ranch and never worked in public safety again. But with measured risk, safety precautions met, and comprehensive insurance[1], doing the things that bring you self-fulfillment could be key to keeping your head in the game. Activities that bring you joy are important to balancing the other 40-plus hours spent at work each week.

For Kyle and his wife, this conversation came in a small-town emergency room, waiting for X-rays. He conceded that finding the hole shot in a crowd of equally aggressive novice riders was probably not sparking enough joy to outweigh the broken scapula and rib he was now facing — along with six weeks off work. As a couple, they agreed he would keep riding on his property and various venues but without chasing trophies to stroke his ego into a high-revving second gear. Next year, if he decides to try for lucky race number four, they’ll have a larger supplemental medical policy plan for him prior to sending in the entrance fee.

Some life insurance policies have exclusions for dangerous activities such as skydiving, hang gliding and bungee jumping, so be sure to consult your insurance agent to ensure coverage.

Missy Morris started in public safety as a juvenile probation worker after graduating from University of California Santa Barbara in 1991 with a degree in behavioral psychology. She moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to work in probation before quickly transitioning to police work. She spent three years with the Palo Alto and Mountain View police departments as a patrol officer. She spent the following 22 years of her 28-year career at the City of Roseville. Missy worked in critical incident negotiations, eventually becoming the multi-city team leader and serving seven years on the state board of hostage negotiators. Missy feels her greatest assignment was a five-year stint as a traffic motor officer riding a BMW and working fatal accidents. She held several special assignments before retiring in 2020 as a lieutenant. Missy now works with the Lexipol Professional Services Team, working closely with Cordico wellness solution.