The hot summer led to plenty of wildfires. Just as well a fitness programme had firefighters ready for the long days, writes.
Record temperatures in recent months have made for an intense season of callouts for Tipperary Fire and Rescue Service. It has been its busiest summer in over 20 years. Dave Carroll, chief fire officer, says: “We’ve done double the amount of calls in that two-month period (June and July) than we would normally do. We’ve done over 200 wildfires — they’re long, strenuous calls. You could be 12 hours on a hillside or a bog fighting fires.”
The personnel attending these callouts are retained firefighters, which means this is not their only job, but when their pager goes off, they must down tools and get to the fire station within minutes. Marc Mulhaire is a plumber and one of the retained firefighters based in Thurles who has faced into these recent long stints. “They are tough calls,” he says. “The initial start might be hectic and then you fall into a rhythm and everyone has jobs to do, but you’re on your feet and you’re moving around for the duration of the call.”
This complicated set of factors — emergency workers, who have other jobs but who must be ready to respond to callouts within minutes — prompted Tipperary Fire and Rescue Service, in late 2015, to investigate what resources might be out there to help support its firefighters to be as fit as possible.
Carroll says: “We’re 130 firefighters in 12 stations across the county who do a dangerous, physical, and stressful job. We’re very much focused on health and safety, but, to be honest, it was all about the safety element of it, as opposed to the health. We realised we had to move towards the health element of health and safety.
“We have shopkeepers, electricians, people who work day jobs and within five minutes of there being a call, they have to be in the station ready to go. We don’t have them on a 9-5 basis where we can have tailored packages, so it was really to try and come up with something that would fit the retained fire service.”
Carroll approached Setanta College in Thurles to help devise a health and wellness plan that would be flexible enough to work within demands of the service. The college provides strength and conditioning and performance science education to students all around the world. Its collaboration with Tipperary Fire and Rescue Service is the first of its kind in the country.
The idea to investigate the possibility of a wellness programme came from the grassroots level, says Carroll: “It came from our health and safety committee, which is comprised of firefighters, to look at something like this. It has been supported right up to the chief executive of Tipperary County Council, so it came from the ground and got support at the very highest level within the local authority.”
Dr Liam Hennessy is founder of Setanta College and its academic director. He is a former director of fitness with the IRFU and has worked with many sports stars. He’s currently Padraig Harrington’s fitness coach. On Setanta College’s involvement with this initiative, he says:
The whole area of promoting health and wellness through physical activity is at the core of what we do. That’s our bottom line, even in sport — it’s not just about performance and winning, it’s about longevity and wellness and health
The programme devised for the firefighters was broken into four phases to account for screening, testing, and educating the participants.
began with a screening of 40 firefighters, across fitness, nutrition, and body mass index. It looked at their fundamental movement score — movement patterns of the body; how a person squats, steps, stands, or reaches for something.
This focus was part of the injury-reduction element of the programme, the idea being if you improve fundamental movement patterns for a person, such as their posture in standing or reaching or how they squat, you can decrease their risk of injury in a manoeuvre associated with that key movement. Course co-ordinator Luke Jordan then devised individual six-week intensive training plans.
Following that, one student from each fire station was signed up to a 10-week functional screening course at Setanta College. The focus of this course was to equip them with the skills to work with colleagues in identifying faulty movement patterns and assigning exercises to remedy them. Again, the thinking behind this focus was prevention of injuries and improved performance when on callouts. All students were then signed up to a 10-week resistance training course.
Some fire stations have installed gyms to assist staff training on an ongoing basis. The plan is to have a gym fitted in every Tipperary fire station by the end of next year.
Mulhaire, who participated in the initiative, says he learned so much from his involvement, especially in terms of his fundamental movement score: “You’re given a score and that’s your baseline, and the whole idea is to get that baseline higher. By the end of it, I could feel it myself in simple things, like standing up straight, sitting down straight, and being more limber.”
For Mulhaire, the educational aspect of the initiative was the best part. This involved online studies as well as on-site training days at Setanta College where they stepped through each of the exercises to fully understand their purpose. This breaking down of the exercises — the purpose of an exercise; the muscle groups it works on; how it should be executed — is knowledge Mulhaire now brings back to his own fire station as a wellness officer under the initiative.
In the last two months, a gym has been set up in Thurles station. Mulhaire says this is already making a difference: “Before if you were trying to do anything, if you wanted to go for a cycle or for a walk, you always had to keep in mind how far from the station you were going to be.”
As wellness officer, Mulhaire will bring his colleagues through the same programme he did with Setanta College: “I’m going to put them through the same fundamental movement score screening that we were put through, and I’ll give them their three-month workout plan. We will try and get them up to the mid-range level [on the score]. Once they’re there, then we’ll get into a routine of training.”
Carroll says the feedback from participants has been very positive: “It’s about a healthier workforce that makes for a happier workforce that makes for a safer workforce. The better condition they are in, the better they can do their job. If we’re reducing injuries for firefighters, we’ve a better fire service for that.”
Carroll says the roll-out of wellness officers is a rewarding aspect of this investment, with fire services in Cork, Waterford, and Clare expressing an interest in the initiative: “We have a trained person in every station who can do the assessments on both existing staff and new staff coming in and can devise programmes for them. Now that we’re at a stage where they can see that we’re self-sufficient, that we have in-house expertise, I can see it rolling out to other services.”