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Texas Researcher Awarded $1.5 Million Grant From FEMA to Address Health of Volunteer Firefighters

The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health has been awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to test the effectiveness of an online health and wellness program intended to improve volunteer firefighters’ nutrition and fitness and reduce their risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease.


[Photo: Dr. R. Sue Day]

“Volunteer firefighters comprise the majority of the U.S. fire service, yet they are harder to reach than career firefighters for health interventions because they have full-time jobs, fire service training requirements and on-call duties,” said Dr. R. Sue Day, principal investigator and associate professor in the division of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at the UTHealth School of Public Health.

The Internet and mobile-based health and wellness program, called The First Twenty (TF20), will focus on educating and changing the behaviors of volunteer firefighters about fitness and nutrition. The program was designed by a volunteer firefighter and is built around the firefighters’ lifestyle. Fitness exercises include activities such as carrying a fire hose instead of lifting weights and team events are encouraged to motivate crews and individuals to continually improve their skills. The nutrition program focuses on eating fruits and vegetables, hydration, and reducing consumption of processed foods.  Firefighters can set goals and log their food intake to instantly receive nutrient amounts and graphs of their intake levels.

The study will recruit volunteer firefighters from across the country for a six-month intervention period. Participants will be able to access TF20 from a phone, computer, tablet or even a CD if Internet access is limited. The program will include nutrition information, video workouts, food logs, and regular personalized electronic updates or challenges.

In addition to the Internet-based program, health coaches will follow up with participants to offer encouragement and advice along the way. Some of the activities will be done as a team, either with firefighters in one location or through Internet communication. “The team-oriented culture of fire service is very much embedded in this program,” said Dr. Day, who also holds a faculty appointment with the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the School of Public Health.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths among firefighters, accounting for almost half of deaths, according to Dr. Day. A recent UTHealth study reported that 78 percent of firefighters are overweight or obese, a factor contributing to these deaths. This intervention is the next step to improving firefighter heath.

Several partners will be involved in the study, including researchers Dr. Sara Jahnke, Dr. Carlos Poston, and Dr. Keith Haddock, from the National Development and Research Institutes. The First Twenty is a nonprofit program dedicated to improving the health of U.S. firefighters, created by firefighter Mr. Dave Wurtzel. The National Volunteer Fire Council also will be an integral part of the recruiting process and support for this project.

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