Fighting Fires and Health Risks

By: Sina D’Amico

Firefighters are used to putting their lives on the line to save others. It’s a risky business, but so is eating like many firefighters do, as I found out during my three-week rotation with the dietitian for Montgomery County’s firefighters. After receiving a full run-down of what the dietitian does day in and day out, my partner and I were able to attend education sessions at various facilities, prepare meals for two stations, and create education materials and recipe books for the firefighters. 

A major focus in this population is their elevated risk for certain health problems such as heart disease and cancer that comes from their exposure to toxins when working active fires. The dinner meals that stations choose to make during shifts tend to increase their risk. The firefighters I spoke with shared with me the types of meals they liked to make at the station. Taste, they said, was their major concern. After all, their shifts can be physically and mentally exhausting and they need to recharge. The foods they tend to choose are more “comfort food” options, such as items wrapped in bacon, covered in cheese, or generally high in fat and cholesterol. The goal with this population is to still provide meals with lots of flavor but a lower fat and cholesterol content.  

Firefighters typically work 24-hour shifts – that means they must plan meals and snacks to bring with them to the station. Typically, dinner is prepared at the station and each shift member contributes a certain amount to cover grocery costs. Each station has an A, B and C shift; each shift also has their own refrigerator and storage space. However, space is usually limited and time is a major concern. There is no knowing when a call will actually come in; the members could get a call in the middle of eating their prepared station dinner. When this happens, all of the food is left exactly where it is until the members return. There is no one there to put things away to save for later. This makes it hard to prepare and eat full meals, especially around dinner time. 

One way I supported healthier eating by the firefighters was to create meal guides. These resources featured quick, healthy and affordable items that they could prepare at home or the station. Additionally, these items could be easily transported for a meal on the go. My partner, Caty, and I spent time researching different recipes that were healthy but did not compromise on flavor. The biggest thing this population was concerned about was how their meals tasted – which is understandable. With this in mind, we compiled a list of recipes that were healthy and budget-friendly, along with options to prepare a greater quantity if individuals were able to use a slow cooker at home.

The cover photo of one recipe book my partner and I created

An important component of this project was to get to know the firefighters so we could tailor the meal guides to their needs. Caty and I visited four different stations and talked with them about what they like to eat. Taking their answers into account helped us ultimately choose which recipes we included and which we left out of our final recipe book projects. Once the different stations found out about this project, they were excited and could not wait for the dietitian to share it. 

To really get the firefighters hooked on healthier eating, we decided they needed to taste one of the delicious meals in the guide. So next I cooked dinner at one of the stations to show the firefighters that a healthier dinner can taste good. I visited the station where I would be cooking prior to the night of the meal to see their cooking structure and one of their typical meals. On the menu that night was chicken stuffed with jalapeno poppers. The jalapeno popper stuffing consisted of cream cheese, shredded cheese, jalapenos and green onions. This was mixed together and stuffed inside the chicken breasts. Each chicken breast was then wrapped in two pieces of bacon and even more shredded cheese topped off each piece. While this might sound like a good meal, from a nutritional standpoint it was extremely high in fat and cholesterol, which increased these firefighter’s health risk even more.

Taking this typical meal into consideration, Caty and I decided to cook a Cajun chicken pasta. This recipe was from a book that included recipes developed by other current and previous University of Maryland dietetic interns. All of the prep for this meal was done in the station kitchen. Ingredients included chicken (made in the crockpot), kielbasa (cooked in a separate pan), whole wheat pasta, peppers, onions, chicken broth and tomato paste. The simplicity of this dish was that everything could be cooked in one pot, making cook time and clean up time even shorter for an already busy station.

All of the foods Caty and I prepared for our station meal

Preparing this meal taught me how to make something for a large group of individuals where everyone has a different food preference. Some shift members have allergies, some follow a specific diet, and others are picky eaters and don’t eat a wide variety of foods. Just like station members on cooking duty must do, I had to take this into account when planning the dinner. After the meal was served and all the station members were seated, they started complimenting the meal and giving very positive feedback. None of them noticed the difference in the use of whole wheat pasta versus regular pasta and they were excited to get the recipe to start making it on their own. 

This three-week rotation taught me a lot about being able to accommodate certain groups without having to completely change their way of eating. The health risks that come along with being a firefighter are severe, and making food that can lower these risks is extremely important. It was very satisfying getting the station members engaged and excited about cooking healthier meals.

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