Fitting-in

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Baigent, D. (2014). "A sociologist’s view of the ‘Fire Fit’ draft report." FIRE OCTOBER.
            A sociologist’s view of the ‘Fire Fit’ draft report

I was a firefighter for over 30 years and then became an academic and read for a PhD on firefighter’s culture.  My contributions are sociological, grounded in qualitative research specifically focusing on culture and gender in the fire service.  Although the draft ‘Fire Fit’ report aids our understanding about firefighter fitness, I raise the following sociological arguments that have not been considered in the report.

Firefighters maintain fitness through personal programs and the daily work that they do.  A consequence of this is that as firefighters’ grow older parts of their bodies are subject to wear and tear, particularly if they seek ‘match fit’ levels all the time.  Bad backs and knees develop, often exacerbated through arthritis and this is hardly avoidable.  However as a consequence older firefighters have to protect their ‘injuries’, fitness reduces and weight and waist measurements increase. 

To an extent the pool of firefighters’ ‘hard earned’ experiential knowledge compensates for reduced fitness and although older  firefighters are still able to do their work, age-related injuries are more likely to occur.  I would expect this to have been reflected in the data assembled for the report through a mix of qualitative and quantitative research as it is and it should be possible to tease it out: although some qualitative research with this as a focus may add to the findings.

Some people are able to maintain fitness levels into old age but I expect the numbers who are able to do this reduces proportionately with age.  I suppose what I am saying is that being fit and doing a very physical job takes its toll, which in turn is likely to result weight gain and larger waistbands as firefighters get older.

Also to be taken into consideration in relation to older firefighters is that they work in time critical circumstances and alongside younger fitter models of themselves.  This can require them to work harder than they may choose (to both get the job done and to prove they can keep up).  In turn this is likely to increase the damage to their bodies with the resulting outcome that they have to reduce their fitness regimes, take more anti-inflammatories and the spiral continues.  In simple terms, I would say this is inevitable and is something that was recognised in a pension scheme designed specifically for the firefighter.  Senior Officers have always retired later and they may be fit but they do not take the knocks nor suffer the extremes of firefighting. 

It would be necessary for further research to identify how many firefighters routinely use some form of medical intervention to enable them to continue to do their work when making judgments on firefighters’ age and fitness.

From my research I may suggest that there is a need to be wary of deaths recorded for heart failure in the US.  Many US firefighters are volunteers and many of these regularly work into their seventies in what is a ‘boys club’ as much as an emergency service.   Firefighters at this age are far more likely to die from over exertion and this may distort the figures from the US.  I cannot recall any firefighters in the UK dying at fires from heart failure, although there was recently a firefighter who died on return to the station and this may be related.

The ‘Fire Fit’ report also puts some store around what I would term the decrease in job satisfaction and related stress that may occur in firefighters as they get older.  For example ‘Measures of well-being suggested that individuals at higher risk of chronic disease were also likely to exhibit more adverse mood states, fewer positive mood states and lower life satisfaction’ and ‘physical activity … and well-being markers in operational firefighters alone tend to reduce with age’.  I would challenge this analysis and suggest a social explanation that the ‘hard’ science approach misses. 

First, I suggest that older firefighters who have given a lifetime of public service are not carried along by the employer’s argument of efficiency. Moaning is a relief valve to the way they see their service as being depleted and reducing their ability to do their job.  They will though, despite their apparent negativity, always step up to the plate and do their job. 

Second, I suggest that negativity is an outcome of firefighters’ cultural arrangements.  Such a possibility and its effects are entirely missed in the analysis in ‘Fire Fit. What appears as negative to the hard scientist is a social arrangement through which firefighters constantly critique their ways of working and reflect on the fires that they have attended in order to improve their firefighting skills. 

This is a type of informal ongoing everlasting but nonetheless important debrief: a form of post-mortems around the mess table that looks to critique and improve performance.  Constant and ongoing informal debriefing improves and shares firefighters’ skills.  In a profession that is largely experiential and reflexive, constant discussion and talking is a feature of their work and the way by which firefighting skills are handed onto the next generation. 

This way of working and talking almost inevitably extends through socialization to define firefighters approach to life and forms ways of understanding the world in what they would call their family (the watch).  In turn this leads to (and has always led to) them taking a critical view of their employers and working environments.  To the outsider this can often be seen as moaning.   Those more aware would recognise that this informal cultural arrangement is in the hands of older firefighters who are more likely to be ‘outspoken.  What appears to ‘Fire Fit’ as a lesser mood state is in part of a cultural arrangement arranged for the betterment of the service.  Firefighters are not negative; they may appear so when talking, but this is cultural and the fire service remains a ‘can do’ service.

 

Conclusion
The draft ‘Fire Fit’ report appears to provide an objective outcome that points towards fatter firefighters who moan more as they get older as if this is something that can be avoided.  Using this argument to suggest the potential for heart failure (although there is no substantive data on this) can be countered by a suggestion that this is in fact a positive cultural arrangement. Sociology would also suggest maintaining fitness regimes, where there is a requirement to  be ‘match fit’ for so long, leads to a situation whereby the older the firefighter the more likely they are covering an injury, and using medication and physical interventions.  These actions are sustainable up to a point because skills compensate for fitness.  However there is a cut off point reflected in the earlier pension arrangements, which were job specific and allowed for retirement at age 50-55. 

Changes that force firefighters to work into their 60’s have the potential to create a situation whereby more and more firefighters fail competency tests and ‘Fire Fit’ leans towards justifying this failure as if it were firefighters’ fault.  A subjective view that a social science explanation challenges.

One outcome of new arrangements are that firefighter’s culture will adapt to a point where firefighters will consider what they have never done before, to be less aggressive in their firefighting or to treat the service as a short term job. Those that do stay will likely only be able to do so if they protect their bodies by lowering their own fitness regimes so as not to be ‘match fit’ all the time and not push themselves so hard at fires.  The potential then is for fire losses and fire deaths to increase: a spiral that will increase as firefighter’s dedication to their service and the public gives way to self-preservation. 

If this becomes a cultural expectation the fire service will increasingly becomes just another job: a young person’s job.  The consequences are that fire service will not be a job for life and in a profession where experience is essential this is not an efficiency