Norfolk and Suffolk Fire and Rescue Services tackling child obesity

Fire crews in Norfolk and Suffolk are working in partnership with local NHS teams to help overweight teenagers become more active.

The teenagers get to take part in eightweek activity and nutrition courses at two local fire stations with the firefighters acting as role models. Those who have taken part have reported it has helped them change their lifestyles.

Child obesity is a growing problem that is proving difficult to tackle. But in Norfolk and Suffolk progress is being made thanks to the help of firefighters. The Fire Fighting Fit and Healthy Programme offers children aged 13 to 17 who are overweight access to weekly healthy lifestyle sessions. These are run by firefighters themselves and allow teenagers take part in a range of activities based around what firefighters do in their day-to-day jobs. This can include everything from hose running to climbing towers. The sessions, which take part over the course of eight weeks, are run by the firefighters who have been given specialist gym instruction and nutrition training. Each session lasts two hours and combines 30 to 40 minutes on nutrition with over an hour of physical activity. The aim is to help develop the youngsters’ understanding of the importance of staying healthy and how it can be achieved so when they are finished they are able to incorporate the new regimens into their everyday lives.

The scheme was launched four years ago in partnership with East Coast Community Healthcare (ECCH), which runs the Childhood Healthy Weight Service for the two county councils, and the two Fire and Rescue Services. It started at Suffolk’s Lowestoft fire station before it was expanded to the Great Yarmouth fire station in the Norfolk region two years ago.

ECCH Childhood Healthy Weight Services Manager Steph Edrich says: “It is a difficult age to get health messages across so what we have tried to do is use the standing that firefighters have to encourage these teenagers to adopt healthier lifestyles.

“They bring something a little different to what we offer. They are role models and therefore are able to motivate youngsters in a way traditional health and local government services cannot. Those who have completed the programme have made great improvements to their lifestyles and feel much more confident. A number have also reported they even want to become firefighters afterwards, which can’t be a bad thing.”

The sessions are held after school and are normally attended by between five and 10 teenagers. Three courses are run at each fire station every year with referrals coming from a variety of sources, including GPs, school nurses and via self-referral.

They are structured to gradually build up the participants’ knowledge, skills and confidence. The youngsters are also encouraged to keep a diary throughout.

The first week is a meet and greet session and then in the following weeks they learn about everything from what a healthy plate looks like to how to read food labels before a cooking demonstration is held in week six.

Alongside the firefighter-related activities, the youngsters also play games, such as unihockey, and get to work out in the fire station gyms. The final session is set aside for a “passing out parade” to recognise and celebrate the journey the youngsters have been on. ECCH then follow up with the children who have taken part, to help them keep up the good habits they have learnt.

Neil Henderson, Watch Commander at the Lowestoft fire station, says: “It is great to see the progress they make. These kids often come from quite difficult backgrounds, but they really respond to the course. Most will lose a significant amount of weight during the course and that normally continues”.

But it is not just about losing weight and getting fit. You can see with many of them that their whole approach to life and their attitude changes. They gain confidence by being part of a group and learning about health.

“We have one lad who is 18 now and volunteers as a student instructor and we are hoping we can get him trained as an on-call firefighter soon. He came to us when he was 15 and has become so dedicated.”

Thaine Hacon, Watch Manager at the Great Yarmouth fire station, agrees. “We are delighted to be involved in such an innovative and worthwhile programme. Fire Fighting Fit is a fantastic opportunity for youngsters to learn about being healthy and have fun while also getting fit. A young person may feel selfconscious going to a typical club but here everyone will be in the same boat. They all get to exercise with firefighters, use firefighting equipment and take part in sessions including basic first aid and fire safety in the home.”

Feedback from those who have taken part also shows the impact the scheme has. One recent participant reported that they had “changed their lifestyle by eating less and eating more fruit”, while another said they were “eating better, smaller portions”.

The programme has also started to be promoted through a new mobile web app that ECCH has just launched. The app includes a body mass index calculator so parents can assess whether their child is a healthy weight. It also has health and fitness advice, recipes and information on the programmes run by ECCH.

As well as the Fire Fighting Fit and Healthy scheme, these include the national MEND programme for seven to 13-year-olds, Health, Exercise and Nutrition for the Really Young (HENRY) for zero to five-year-olds and Better Life, Achieve and Succeed Together (BLAST), an eight-week after-school healthy lifestyle club.

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