5 steps to creating an EMS wellness program

Help your agency to breed a healthier, fitter, more productive, and less injured responder

A career in public safety should involve not just surviving it, but living comfortably with your body when it's all said and done. Yet sitting for long hours, poor posture, extreme working conditions, and lifting and bending will cause pain and injury, and our psyche often dictates that we need to wait for an injury to occur to do something about it.

But departments that establish and enforce a culture of wellness can change that. They excelled for the simple fact that a standard was established and a culture was created to reinforce the principles of wellness. Of the departments I have consulted with, the few that excelled did so by supporting increased fitness and wellness early on. This culture breeds a healthier, fitter, more productive, and less injured responder.

The average career of a medic in a busy system is about 10 years. When a wellness imitative is established and injury prevention through fitness is practiced it will only take two to three generations of employees to have a well followed and accepted wellness program. As new employees come in and 'incumbent' employees remain, that culture will be reinforced to the new employees. When designing a wellness program please go forward with the understanding that public safety is like no other profession. But the 'off the shelf' wellness programs designed for corporate or factory workers will not fly in our world. Here are five components of a wellness initiative tailor to EMS professionals.

1. Screening and Testing 

All employees need to be initially screened and then re-tested yearly for basic biometrics, including:height, weight, BP, heart rate, body fat and circumference measurements.   A well designed program will also screen for functional movements specific to the job along with job specific fitness tests.

2. Employee input 

Very few programs will succeed if the field employees think they are having it forced upon them. Holding small group employee meetings to gather feedback on 'corporate culture' and fears will go a long way. If you can achieve greater than 75 percent employee backing, chances of succeeding long term are much higher.

3. Administration participation 

Department officers and administration must not only participate in the program, they must also fully support it. Lead by example and the troops are more likely to follow.

4. Nutrition 

It goes without saying that a wellness program will not succeed unless dietary and nutrition habits are changed. This is a tricky topic since we cannot always just sit and eat — we are on duty and must respond when called. They key here is education. Responders must learn how to eat healthy on duty and off. It's really not hard, it just takes some pre-planning. If you kick off wellness week with soda and doughnuts you failed before you started, so make sure temptations, like the vending machine, is off limits while on duty.

5. Fitness and exercise

We must acknowledge and understand that there are just certain exercises that cannot be done. Because of the chronic postural stress sustained during a shift many 'fitness' techniques will further encourage pain and injury.

Advanced biomechanical 'corrective exercise' techniques must be employed and practiced to avoid making the problem worse. Crews must be allowed to stretch and work out on duty. The benefit of preventing multiple career-ending injuries far outweighs the risk of a minor one from working out. Encourage employees to follow a protocol designed by a public safety fitness professional to avoid many of the common pitfalls in fitness and exercise.

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