Fire Alarm: Today More Than Half of British Firemen Are Overweight

The obesity epidemic in Britain is having a serious effect on the efficiency of the nation’s fire brigades. Many firemen are now so fat that they can no longer run up their ladders or clamber over the roofs of burning buildings. A recent survey of 735 male fire fighters, carried out by researchers at Loughborough University, has revealed that 53 per cent are overweight and 13 per cent clinically obese. These rates are significantly higher than those found among the general public. In response to this appalling trend, some new fire stations are being built without their traditional greasy poles, for fear that heavyweight members of the emergency crews will damage their ankles and knees on impact with the ground. This is a senseless reaction, since far fewer accidents are caused when men slide down the pole in an orderly fashion, rather than rush helter-skelter down the stairs like Keystone Cops. The obesity epidemic is having a serious impact on the efficiency of the country’s 40,000 full time fire fighters, and also increasing their work load. Nowadays fire crews are being called out on an almost daily basis, not just to rescue cats trapped up trees, but also to help the incapably gross to negotiate flights of stairs, get out of their baths or clamber out of bed. Three-quarters of these call-outs relate to NHS patients, who need to be transported to and from their hospital beds. These trips cost the fire brigade about £1,000 to £2,000 a time, and take crew members away from their appointed duties. They also subject fire workers to undue physical strain, especially when their own fitness levels are poor. American surveys have found that nearly half of on-duty deaths among fire fighters are caused by heart disease. That’s not because they’re

more prone to cardiovascular disease than the general public, but because their work subjects them to greater levels of mental stress and physical strain.

This is a dilemma which must be faced without delay. Tax payers in Britain are not getting value for money, if the people employed by the emergency services are not fit for purpose. The same argument applies to overweight policemen, as was made clear in an earlier posting on this site, at Fire fighters and policemen have a duty – both to themselves and to the public they serve – to keep themselves fit. If present trends continue, half the adult population of Britain will be obese by 2030. Steps must be taken now, as a matter of urgency, to see this doesn’t apply to the nation’s fire fighters. This can be done by adopting three simple measures. Recruitment tests must be made more stringent. At present the Fire Service web site says that would-be-entrants must have certain personal attributes. It lists such qualities as confidence, resilience and integrity, but makes no mention whatsoever of physical fitness. In future the service should only take on trainees who are of a healthy weight, and meet minimum levels of stamina and strength. To join the US army, male recruits have to be capable of completing a 1.5 mile run and perform 50 sit-ups and 45 press-ups. Some similar tests should be used to weed out unsuitable applicants for the UK fire brigade. Once trained, fire fighters should be required to pass a bi-annual medical fitness test. Any who are found to be unfit or overweight, should be offered the chance of attending a commercially-run workplace, health promotion programme, akin to those held by many big conglomerates, like Kelloggs and Nestlé UK. Last year a team of Danish economist from the University of Copenhagen published a review of thirty such worksite interventions and found they were highly cost-effective, leading to reduced sickness absenteeism and increased employee health and productivity. If they’re thought to be beneficial for sedentary workers, how much more vital must they be for fire fighters who are regularly called upon to engage in what can be a strenuous, physical battle to extinguish fires and preserve our lives and safety. If fire fighters put on weight, despite the introduction of these precautionary measures, they should realise that they run the risk of being sacked. You can’t be a ballet dancer or model if you’re fat; nor should you be a fire fighter. This is quite permissible under the Employment Rights Act 1996, which says that people can only be dismissed on grounds of their conduct, capability, redundancy, breach of statutory duty or ‘some other substantial reason.’ This clearly applies to roly-poly firemen. A recent statement by the Fire Brigades Union said that ‘there have been cases where people have been dismissed on the basis of their weight.’ This must in future be the rule rather than the exception. It’s a tough disciplinary stance to take, but if our fire fighters can’t shape up, they must ship out – for their own safety as well as ours.


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