Conversations on Firehouse Nutrition – Part 1: Nutritional Hazards of the First Responder 

March 3, 2016
Offering a special curriculum for First Responders, AAC looks at the whole continuum of issues impacting our First Responders with the knowledge that maintaining healthy, long-term recovery often calls for a wide range of lifestyle changes. Good nutrition is a piece of that puzzle, and it takes on special importance in early recovery because it restores balance in a body and brain that have been mal-nourished and exhausted by addiction. 

The lifestyles, stressors, sleep patterns and health risks common among first responders make nutrition even more important – but also more challenging. 

In the following conversation, Registered Nutritionist Kayla Little, American Addiction Centers, and veteran firehouse chef Captain Michael Morse explore nutritional challenges of the firehouse lifestyle and look for ways first responders in recovery might adopt nutritional habits.

Captain Michael Morse: I’ve learned over the years how to cook somewhat healthy in using chicken broth instead of cheeses and things like that. You can make anything taste good with heavy cream, and salt, and sugar. There’s really not much of a challenge there. If somebody new comes in with just an inkling of cooking knowledge and knows how to use all that stuff, everybody loves them, and they’re all happy.

Then I come and cook, and I would give them the healthier version of that. They wouldn’t be quite as happy, but they wouldn’t be really mad either. It’s a tradeoff.

Kayla Little, RDN:  

What we know about rich foods is that we can certainly enjoy them on occasion, but it becomes a frequency question, and then it, more importantly, becomes a portion issue. When I have worked with people of service in the past – whether it be fire fighters, EMTs, military personnel – one of the most common reports is, “Well, I only get this much time to eat, or I could be called at any moment in the middle of my meal so I feel like I need to wolf it down in order to get adequate nutrition just in case.”
I was talking with someone from AAC about would it be beneficial at some point, whether it be at one or two firehouses, to do an experiment, “How many meals in the day are really interrupted? What’s the reality on that?” and then perhaps if it’s not quite as much as what the initial belief was, could that help the firemen slow down, enjoy their meal a little bit, and then in turn practice more portion control?
Michael:  There’s a funny thing that a lot of people don’t really understand about the firehouse. There are different companies. A ladder company, they go out pretty seldom actually. They go out when there’s a building fire, or a collapse, or something like that, so those guys, they eat like kings. They take their time. They’re not really too stressed. They’re not worried about the bell going off for them.

Then you have the engine company. That’s the bumper truck. Those guys, they go out a lot more frequently. They go on a lot of EMS calls. Just about anything, they go on.

Then you have the rescue companies, which go out all the time. We usually pop in after the meal is over or before it’s in, and we just grab whatever we can, and grab a plate, and the tone goes off, and off we go. We’re taking the meal with us.

There are like three different schedules in one meal. In the firehouse there’s basically two meals. There’s lunch and dinner. Lunch is at noon. Dinner is around seven. If you can get there for those times, you can fill up your plate and you can go, and if you’re on a ladder company, you can just relax and take your time. The engine guys, a little less. The EMS guys and girls, they just have to grab it and go for the most part.

Kayla:  From that perspective, who would you say, just generally speaking, who seems to be experiencing the most nutritionrelated health concerns out of those three categories?

I would say the EMS crews. They are traditionally nationwide, worldwide actually, they’re understaffed, and they just don’t have the resources, meaning trucks and crews, to actually respond to the 911 calls.

I used to go to work at 0700, and the first run would be at five past seven. Many days we wouldn’t even get back to the station. We would try to come up with a way to get back to grab what the guys are having for lunch, fill up a plate of macaroni and sauce, or meatballs, or whatever it was, take that and eat it on the way to the next call.
The engine company guys, they go out, but they come back pretty quick. They could leave their meal on the table. We used to have these little hats, if you will, that we just covered the plates right on the table. They go out and do their thing, unless it’s a raging inferno or some sort of catastrophe, they could be back in 10 or 15 minutes, and pick up where they left off.

I make fun of the ladder guys all the time because they get to relax. The ladder guys work hard. When there’s a fire, they really put their effort into it. It’s an age long tradition. We always made fun of each other. The ladder guys are going to get the brunt of a lot of my [laughs] scorn, if you will.

Kayla:  And you would say the guys on the ladders can have the least amount of nutritionrelated chronic health conditions.

Michael:  I don’t know about…I was on a ladder company for about eight years, and I ate like a king, and I got fat as a cow, too. It’s kind of like a different job from EMS. You do the EMS calls…they might do one to two thousand calls a year. Now this is in Providence.

Different cities and towns are all different. Whereas an engine company averages about three to four thousand, and our EMS trucks are up to seven thousand, so you’re doing three times the amount of running as the ladder guys. And the ladder guys, they run into the problems of eating a lot, because they’re just – not sitting around – they’re maintaining the station and the equipment – but they have time to eat and eat well.

They may get a little larger on the waist, and when the bell does tip for the ladder guys, they’re working probably ten times harder physically than the EMS people, so it’s a big, big problem for them.

AAC:  So it sounds like the challenges are, you’ve got to prepare food that can be eaten in three different kind of styles. Is that it? Then you have to prepare food that’s healthy for each one of those methods.

Michael:  If we could pull that off, that would be the coup of the century. We make what we make, and if you get it, great, and if you don’t, too bad for you. That’s just generally the culture of the firehouse. They’re not catering to the EMS guys. Oh, they are very nice. They wrap things up and will put it in the fridge for you, but they don’t go into the meal thinking, “OK. Now those poor EMS guys are gonna be running, so let’s make something portable for them and something…”

They just don’t. We just put a ton of food in the pot, or the oven, let it rip.

Kayla:  How much time is allotted to prepare these meals?

Collection Of Grain, Cereal, Seed, BeanMichael:  As much as it takes. Some people bring in food in the morning, and it’s like an allmorning thing. It depends on how complex the meal is, if you need onions peeled and garlic chopped and things like that. Some people truly, truly have a great joy of cooking. Other people will take five minutes and just throw things in the oven. It all depends on who’s cooking and how much they really enjoy it. There’s some great firehouse chefs out there, and there’s some people that just get by, too.

AAC:  Are you on “off” time when you do the cooking, or how does that work? Does the chef not have to go running out if there’s a call?

Michael:  It’s an art, really, how to pull off a meal in the station. You try to think you’re going to have time to do it, but even the ladder guys seldom get through a whole meal, preparingwise, before they have to stop and go out and come back. You can do it in stages, but…if there’s a big house with 12 or so people in it, you delegate so that all of these tasks are done relatively quickly. If it’s one person cooking for 12 people, it’s going to take him all day. But if it’s 12 people cooking for 12 people, everybody’s got a little skill. Somebody could boil water, other people can chop the garlic. Other people can trim the fat off whatever it is we’re making.

So it’s a team effort. We don’t really have, “OK, it’s time to cook lunch, fellows.” You do this in between drills, calls, and station maintenance. It all works out somehow, and we always get the meal on the table somehow or other within an hour or so of when we were supposed to.

Kayla:  So the cooking starts early so that just in case something happens…I see.

Michael:  The thought process actually starts early. Sometimes you have to shop if you’ve been on overtime and there’s nobody brought food in. Some cities don’t let you go to the market, others do. In Providence, it comes and goes. Sometimes they let us. Sometimes a citizen calls and says, “You know, there’s a bunch of firemen at the market hanging around, you know, flirting with the cashiers. We gotta get rid of these guys.”
The mayor will come down, and that’s the end of our shopping trips for a while. Then things cool down, and they let us go again. Some cities and towns, they don’t let you go at all. You have to bring everything from home. What we would do, we’d get to work, about 8:00 or so we’d figure out what we were going to eat, we’d send one of the crews out to the local market, and we’d shop for the meal. Some guys were very, very frugal. Other people would just go to the closest store and spend a fortune.

AAC:  So between the grab and go culture working against the healthy meal frequency and size, and the health benefits of eating slowly and savor the food, the firehouse lifestyle makes it hard to eat healthy. How can you get your energy and still eat slowly?

healthy eating, diet, gesture and people concept - close up of mKayla:  What we know about slow and mindful eating is that it basically creates an environment that fosters the ability to recognize when we’re full before all of our food is gone. Most people utilize what I call external cues to tell us when to stop eating, which is usually when the food is gone. So, I’m at a restaurant, and I’m being served three times the amount that my body needs, and I use finishing that as a cue to stop eating. Or this diet told me that I only should make this much.

Eventually, over time though, either the diet stops, or if I continue to consistently complete what is on my plate… then obviously we’re going to see body weight begin to increase. We might experience issues with cholesterol and diabetes and the whole nine yards.

Utilizing the slow and mindful eating technique can help us use our internal cues to tell us when to stop eating, which really kind of works in any situation. While maybe, Mike, when you were cooking, the fire fighters have access to a really healthy meal. That’s probably adequate calories but not overload on calories. But if someone else is cooking, perhaps that meal’s a little bit heavier, in which case it would be that much more important to be mindful about portion control.

Those guys may not always be in full control over what they are eating, but they can always be in control of the how much. How do we really gauge that quantity? It turns into slow eating. So, if we can think of a way, obviously there is the challenge of, “I could get called,” but perhaps initiating each meal as if I’m not going to get called and try to make that meal last 20 minutes.

When we do that, we usually notice that we can leave a little bit of food on the plate. Typically, we leave that meal not feeling overly full but just full enough to where you’re satisfied. With that being said, if we’ve got just the two big meals going on throughout the day, that would require probably incorporating a breakfast and probably incorporating a couple of small snacks.

I’m wondering, from a snack standpoint in that – when I talk about snacks, I don’t mean your traditional grocery store snack foods but things like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, nut butters, things like that – what types of things are available at the firehouse for firemen to snack on in between meals? And is there any snacking going on between meals – because that can definitely ward off that extreme hunger premeal? And if in their minds they’re thinking, “I have to get these two large meals in,” that can make it challenging and, really, those calories can add up pretty quickly.

Michael:  The firehouse culture is wonderful for some. Some people get carried away. As far as snacks, what we do is we eat remains of previous meals, basically. We’ll raid the refrigerator. There’s four groups or three groups, depending on what city or town or however they run the show, where you leave the station, your group leaves, another group comes on, and we make so much food that there’s always a ton left over, or usually a ton left over.

First thing I would do when I went to work; look in the fridge, see what they had last night. If it was Chicken Parmesan, it was Chicken Parmesan for breakfast. If it was Beef Stroganoff, it was Beef Stroganoff for breakfast. It was so unhealthy and so awful…

AAC:  [laughs]

Michael:  …portion control, what you said about mindful and slowing down your eating is brilliant in a few different ways. Say you’re cooking for 8 to 12 people, 1 person eats a little, the 12th person eats a lot, and you always make enough for the person who eats the most. That way, that one person will be satisfied. It’s always somebody that eats everything, so you have to make a ton, or that person’s going to be complaining.

Then the person that doesn’t eat that much, they’re satisfied, but three or four other people aren’t too satisfied, so we always overdo. We overdo everything. There’s always food in the fridge, and it’s never nut butter, and it’s never fruit. Well, occasionally, but it’s usually not. It’s usually roast beef or whatever they had for the previous meal. Even lunches, like if there’s burgers…If there’s 12 people we’ll make 28 burgers, just in case somebody wants three instead of two.

Kayla:  Wow. OK.

AAC:  [laughs]

Michael:  It’s mostly men. A lot of women in the station, and they just go along with us because they don’t know what else to do with us, basically, because we’re obnoxious and ridiculous. We get away from our families, and we just go and eat whatever the hell we want in the fire station. That means cheeseburgers with blue cheese and bacon – things you would never do at home, because your wife would kill you.

It shifts. “Hmm, what do we want with these burgers? I know. Let’s get 40 bags of potato chips,” and 40 bags of potato chips it is. Then there’s a few left over, so whoever comes in at five to relieve the day crew, we eat the bags of potato chips for an appetizer. Really, it’s a dreadful situation.

Every now and then, though, we get somebody health-minded, and he can coerce the rest of the crew into going along somewhat with him, as long as it’s not horrible, and everybody’s not hungry.

If you try to eat too healthy, you get a fourounce piece of salmon with a spinach salad, people are going to be starving.

Kayla:  Right.

Michael:  There’ll be no leftovers, and there’s going to be pandemonium in the firehouse.

Kayla:  Right, right. Yeah, absolutely. I have a couple of little words that I make up, of course, and one is, I call them good and bad “infoodences” –  rather than influences, infoodences. It sounds like maybe the group gets together almost like  I’m a female, so I can relate to the female side  a group of ladies getting together and having their favorite dessert or their chocolate or something like that. It sounds like that’s going on a little bit, and then perhaps like when the cat’s away, the mice will play.

Michael:  Oh, it’s terrible. Real awful.

Kayla: They really influence each other. Then, the grab and go stuff, I wondered if it would be feasible maybe to have just some healthy cold cut sandwiches on hand, that if somebody did have to run out, they could grab one of those in place and run out the door, rather than doing like, they have to wolf down this huge meal while they’re in the middle of a fire truck and things like that.

There are some little ideas that could be…it would be beneficial for the health after it was adopted by the staff.

hand of chef baker in uniform adding spice into pizza after pizzMichael:  I can tell one quick story about the influence. I was brand new. They found out that I used to be a cook in a restaurant, which was the death knell for me, because all of a sudden I became the firehouse cook. I was working at Messer Street, which is right in the middle of the ghetto, and it’s the toughest fire fighters around, all older, grizzled veterans, and I was a brand new guy.

They realized, got me to cook, and one of the biggest guys, Jeff, and he’s a chef, actually, but he let me cook that day. His famous words, which he tells every new guy, is, “This better not suck.” [laughs] And he meant it, and he scared the living daylights out of me. That’s like his battle cry. “This better not suck.” Then you say, “Hmm, all right. Well maybe just a little more butter,” instead of what I was originally going to do.

They do scare you at first, but after a while you learn not to take them seriously. It takes a long time, though, to get comfortable in the kitchen enough to try something healthy with these people. They’re your comrades. They’re your friends. They can be a scary bunch too, if you don’t feed them enough.

AAC:  In most of your “Firehouse Chef” stories, it says that if you leave out bread or rolls or something, you’re going to get…

Michael:  God help you. The sacrificial loaf is what it’s called. You have to get five loaves of Italian bread. You’ve got to feed the animals. You put it on the table. You let them slice it. They load it up with butter. Without a sacrificial loaf, you’re in big trouble.

AAC:  That’s one I wanted to ask Kayla about  if there are any substitutes that they might be, “Oh, wow. I can do this.”

Kayla:  I would say providing less, so there’s only two [loaves] available and there are 12 people. That two has to be split between the 12. The portions then get put under control. Also shooting for a whole grain option if bread has to be on the table, shooting for the whole grain loaf, and then getting quite less of it. Most of the time people are going to be courteous enough to make sure that everyone’s fed before they take this giant portion.
Michael:  [laughs] I don’t mean to interject. I probably am hogging all the space here. There’s one more thing. I’ll say it and I’ll be quiet for five minutes. I swear. What is the saying? “When there’s a lot, take a lot. When there’s a little, take it all.” That’s the sad truth of the fire house. They do, too.

Check back next week as the conversation continues…

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