Three visionaries founded the Arizona Firefighter Athletics (AZFFA) 501(c)3 charity organization in 2011, with the mission to, “Build camaraderie and community within the public safety family through sport and charity.” Membership comprises current and former firefighters who compete in the US Police and Fire Championships, as well as in the World Police and Fire Games. AZFFA also supports the community, “on and off duty,” by sharing part of their proceeds with local charities, including the Arizona Burn Foundation (assistance for burn survivors and their families) and the 100 Club of Arizona (assistance for families of first responders who are seriously injured or killed in the line of duty). These noble sentiments become magnanimous commitments when regarded through the lens of reality, without flattering glamorization. Firefighters have been applauded throughout our pop culture as chiseled heroes – not so much heroines, yet – who primarily rescue people from agonizing death by inferno and then pose for calendars in their spare time. They enjoy primarily an elevated popularity over the other first responders, particularly since their interaction with the public centers around rescue and recovery. The reality of the profession invokes a deeper level of respect for the personal sacrifices the individuals make.
The daily grind of firefighting deviates sharply from almost every other profession. Physical demands alone generate excessive wear and tear on the body. The National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) published a study in 2015 title, “Trends in Firefighter Injuries.” (NFPA, Fire Analysis and Research, Quincy, MA). This study identifies muscular strain as the primary type of injury acquired in the line of duty at 26.5%. The problem is compounded exponentially for Arizona firefighters every summer. They have an additional threat to contend with, characteristic to this state: scorching temperatures. “But it’s a dry heat” …. That zaps the tether holding body and soul together for unfortunate souls every year in Arizona. Imagine, with base temperatures in metropolitan Arizona normally exceeding 110F, firefighters add about 45 extra pounds of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to fight blazes in an already lethal environment. Obviously, it requires peak physical condition to be able to perform the duties of a firefighter in Arizona, and participating in athletics provides opportunities for firefighters to maintain physical fitness. Competing in organized events also lights the motivational fire to train for a PURPOSE.
A typical metropolis bears its share of human suffering and shortcoming, and unfortunately, Arizona does not come as an exception. With urban populations easily exceeding one million people, emergency services are inevitably required daily, and a firefighter can reasonably expect to respond to at least one call during the shift for situations that involve victims undergoing abnormally elevated levels of distress and trauma. According to a Phoenix Fire Department Fact Sheet published December 2017, of a total 215,178 calls, only 21,730 related to fires – just over 10%! The remaining 90% were directed to Emergency Medical Services. This is possibly the most overlooked, most thankless component of a firefighter’s service to the community. It is the emergency medical responder who goes to every injury and fatality occurrence, from traffic accidents, to assaults, to accidental and deliberate overdoses, to suicides.The math works out to 530 calls per day for emergency medical services. In the midst of a complete stranger’s breakdown, the firefighter must rise above someone else’s life altering chaos. Frequently confronting physical and mental deterioration of humankind can deplete even the most emotionally detached. Sometimes certain stimuli just take their toll.
The nature of the profession inevitably creates varying degrees of disconnect from family, friends, and society at large. Professional and personal isolation, despair and frustration over human loss, a sense of hopeless imbalance in the universe, survivor’s guilt – these begin to culminate in physical, mental, and emotional strain. It is complete natural cause and effect that a firefighter experiences depressive states. Left unchecked, temporary states become catalysts for disorders with varying degrees of severity. Mental and physical functionality are challenged as the individual struggles to reconcile Professional Burden with Personal Well-Being.
Preserving this functionality link between the emotional, the psychological, and the physical continues to motivate researchers around the world who work with mental health. In 2013, the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport published the article titled, “Psychological and social benefits of sport participation: The development of health through sport conceptual model.” (Eime, Young, Harvey, and Payne). Their study concluded that the social interaction incorporated into team sports can directly boost the individuals physical and mental health. (DOI here). With this in mind, one may regard supporting the Arizona Firefighter Athletics as a multi-tier reinvestment into the community.
In 2011, Erik Shisslak, Sara Shisslak, and Jennifer Bennie founded the Arizona Firefighter Athletics, using collective insight and empathy in creating the platform for this dynamic give-and-get. In training for and competing in organized team sports, Arizona firefighter athletes clearly strive toward meeting physical goals to compete in event designed to raise awareness and funding for other charities. This is what the organization gives. What do these firefighter athletes get? When training for a competition, the philosophy usually follows, “Train to train another day.” Pressure to subject the body to unnecessary physical strain eases when individuals push themselves for a reasonable purpose. Athletes develop a healthier balance between vigorous physical training and rest periods. By default if not by design, athletes usually also seek to optimize performance through nutrition. Purpose and direction to maintaining physical, mental, and emotional wellness are what Arizona firefighter athletes “get.”
Human fragility has influenced many to conclude that life is hopeless, pointless, useless. Human resilience has also moved many to pull out of despair and encourage other individuals able to receive that. Arizona Firefighter Athletics empowers firefighters to commit to a lifestyle that cultivates physical, mental, and emotional health. They sustain the community and each other through personal sacrifice of the body, time, and self-interests. And they win medals.
Meet the team on Facebook @azffathletics.
The organization will be participating in the Tucson Comic Con from November 2-4! Interested in attending? Find out more here. Thank You to Arizona Firefighter Athletics for providing all of the engaging photos!