Fire

Emergencies follow no set schedule and can happen at a moment’s notice. So when firefighters with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department file into the Wellfit center in Chantilly, they often bring their equipment with them, leaving their gear near the entrance and trucks parked out front in case their shift is called into action.

The Wellfit center offers strength training and physical therapy for Fairfax County’s finest and is part of an all-encompassing strategy FCFRD has undertaken that is unique in the country. Alongside these services, the department provides dietary guidance and behavioral counseling for an all-encompassing approach to ensure firefighters are in the best shape possible to perform their arduous tasks. 

It’s an approach that “breaks down the barriers to care,” said Battalion Chief Brian Edmonston. The program is proactive as well as reactive – firefighters who receive proper physical training are less prone to injury, and those who become injured can be more swiftly rehabilitated to be ready to return to the field. “We continue to build you back up,” he said.

Responding to emergencies begins with healthy meals, which firefighters tend to have little spare time to prepare. That’s why Megan Lautz, the department’s specialized dietician, works closely with them to devise nutritious eating habits.  

“If you’ve ever worked with a firefighter, they love meat and don’t have a ton of time for fruits and vegetables,” Lautz said. “We know they need more fruits and vegetables, to hydrate and cut back on caffeine,” which is why her approach is focused on “creating a balance to be empathetic to the lifestyle.” 

Visiting the Wellfit center, which is open 24/7, is not required for the 1,400 firefighters with the department. Though mandatory options are being explored, the current focus is on positive incentives to draw shifts in. 

And the facility, equipped with a full range of fitness equipment, offers what many firefighters are looking for: trash talk, loud music, camaraderie, and overall, a good time. “The energy is changing,” Edmonston observed, which is building out a more robust “esprit de corps.”

Five days a week, the workouts are supervised by the department’s Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Jake Patten. Before joining up with the department, Patten worked with athletes in the NCAA, a specialty that equipped him for the role of training first responders, who are classified as tactical athletes. 

But the transition to training first responders was not without challenges. Whereas athletes follow rigid timetables structured around a season, first responders’ schedules are far more erratic. 

Devising workouts over a months-long period for firefighters, whose shifts can be called upon at any time, can complicate fitness plans. Along with promotions, transfers, vacations, and childbirth, adherence to an organized workout routine can be difficult. “Every day is a different day. I have to stay on top of my coaching game,” Patten said. 

One of the largest difficulties the program overcame was the pandemic. Though the Wellfit center stayed open, the pandemic disrupted normal routines, and it took many months for crews to cautiously return. The center took numerous precautions – relics of which persist in the rust on equipment left by repeated sanitation – but with time, things eventually returned to normal, and programs are back in full swing. 

Alongside shifts coming in for normal workouts, injured firefighters arrive for separate rotations as well, where they work with Physical Therapist Nathan Pierce. Overseen by Pierce, firefighters can suit up in their equipment, which weighs upwards of 70 pounds and perform their usual duties, like lifting ladders, in a controlled setting. 

In addition to physical therapy, Pierce strives to educate firefighters on the science of pain to help them better understand their impairments, the most typical of which is a shoulder injury. “Pain science is as important as the modalities we do,” Pierce noted, which is especially important given the psychological stress firefighters are under. 

“The things they see on a daily basis, it can ramp them up,” Pierce said. “Educating them on phases of healing and tissue healing times is really important. If they don’t know what’s wrong, fear creeps in, which ramps up the sympathetic nervous system, which then makes them more sensitive to pain.” Pierce also steers away from the “s-word,” which is surgery, a taboo concept for many first responders.  

Sometimes, a psychological burden can weigh just as great, or even more so, as physical pain, which Pierce and other staff vigilantly look out for. “If I sense any psychological yellow or red flags, I’ll ask them if they’ve talked to anyone about this,” Pierce said. Firefighters are usually fairly “stoic, but it takes more strength in a lot of cases to say, you know what, I’m not fine,” he said.

That’s where Dr. LaShanna Newton, the department’s director of the Behavioral Health Program, comes in. Newton works directly with first responders, who when needed, can get a response time typically within 24 hours. 

“With first responders, it is a very intermittent but consistent exposure to trauma,” Newton explained. For the duration of their shift, “they’re going to have 24 hours of potential exposure to trauma. So what we’re trying to do is learn how to manage that in between the time they’re not on shift. And that’s hard to do because feelings are not like light switches.”

Newton noted that the need for the care is high, and as barriers come down, more first responders are comfortable seeking out the support. 

“People put them on a pedestal as if they can handle all disasters of the world,” Newton said. “To a degree, they can, but they still need support. And we need to be able to provide a safe space for that,” she added. “At the end of the day, they are still human.”

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