Of all the meals in regular rotation at the Station 5 firehouse in North Charleston, none is as popular as the chicken sandwich.
It’s not just any chicken sandwich, Capt. David Reindollar emphasizes. To make it, whichever firefighter has drawn cooking duty first rustles up a bag of hot dog buns. Then he or she tucks a fried chicken tender into each bun, and covers the meat with cheese and honey mustard. Next, the sandwich goes into the oven until the chicken is hot and the cheese is melty.
Reindollar promises “it’s the best thing you ever tasted.” Even better, he ventures, than the sheet pan mac-and-cheese and red velvet cake that sometimes turn up on the station’s shared table.
Station 5’s favorite sandwich also is emblematic of the way that American firefighters, perpetually strapped for time, cash and calories, tend to eat. According to a newly published national survey of firefighters’ nutritional habits, firefighters derive most of their calories from chicken and turkey, alcohol drunk when they’re not working, salty snacks and white flour. The only vegetable which cracked the list of 20 leading calorie sources was a white potato, usually prepared as hash browns or French fries.
“The fire service is nothing but a snapshot of America,” says R. Sue Day, a study co-author who’s an epidemiology professor at the University of Texas’ School of Public Health in Houston. “We’re all facing the same stuff. But they’ve got a bigger burden, and we need them.”
Studies show that cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of U.S. firefighters, with half of on-duty deaths linked to sudden cardiac arrest, strokes and aneurysms. One of the disease’s main risk factors is obesity, a problem that’s nearly as prevalent within the fire service as in America generally. Researchers estimate that approximately four out of every 10 firefighters are obese. Another three are classified as overweight.
“Some days we eat healthy, and some days we call Stoners Pizza,” admits Reindollar’s fellow crewmember, Mario Gates.
Solving the problem isn’t merely a matter of rejiggering menus, Day says: She’s about to publish a paper on a successful weight change program for firefighters that involved a mix of fitness and nutrition interventions. But because it’s hard to clean up a car wreck on a diet of chicken fingers and soda, Roper St. Francis this weekend is offering a healthy cooking class for firefighters.
On a recent evening at North Charleston Fire Department Station 1, dinner looked like something that Roper’s executive chef might demo for her audience at Saturday’s program. Capt. Aaron Peters had brought in a ham that he’d cooked at home in an air fryer, and served it with baked sweet potatoes.
“We try to eat healthy, and we do all right,” he says.
Still, sometimes the firefighters’ best intentions are subverted by community members leaving desserts on their doorsteps. The donations aren’t always well-received — “A two-week-old cake is meaning well?” Scott Hille of Station 1 asks skeptically — but there are times of year when firefighters count on them.
“Around Christmastime, people bring us so much that we don’t have to cook,” Reindollar says. “We just smile because we don’t have to bring no bags of food or nothing.”
Every firehouse shift has a different approach to grocery shopping and cooking: At Station 5, for example, firefighters make a monthly trip to Walmart or Sam’s Club for staples such as peanut butter and barbecue sauce, which they buy by the gallon. Then, as they sketch out meals, they take turns returning to the supermarket for specific ingredients.
“Dude, Walmart did not have avocado ranch,” Jeremiah Moree noted while helping to prepare a tossed salad.
In contrast, at Station 1, one firefighter is in charge of shopping and cooking.
Logistical differences aside, it’s standard across the country for firefighters to pay out-of-pocket for their meals. That’s partly because 69 percent of firefighters are volunteers who receive, at most, token reimbursements for their service. But the city employees interviewed for this story say they also appreciate the autonomy, even if it means the firehouse’s pooled food money is disproportionately spent at burger joints and Mexican restaurants.
“We’ve seen that mindset in the firehouses that ‘I’ve chipped in my money, by God, so I’m going to eat this food,’” says Day, who believes the benefit of classes such as the one organized by Roper is showing firefighters how they can prepare vegetables and eggs inexpensively.
“It’s an effect of the eating environment,” she says. “I’m optimistic we can shift the paradigm.”
Yet nearly every recommendation that nutritionists typically offer people trying to lose weight is complicated by the realities of firefighting. Firefighters can’t decide to eat at the same time each day, swear off eating at odd hours or get seven hours of uninterrupted sleep on a nightly basis.
Daytime calls are equally disruptive, since there’s no way to salvage partially grilled turkey burgers when firefighters are forced to leave the station. “If they go out and come back, it’s pull out the mayo,” said Ed Galaid, a Roper physician who’s led the charge for the Chiefs’ Medical School program, as he watched firefighter Andrea Mazurek sauté asparagus in coconut oil at Station 5. “They are confident.”
In fact, Reindollar says, assembling a sandwich is more than most firefighters want to attempt after a wearying call or drill.
“We just don’t feel like cooking,” he says. In those situations, Moree adds, “you’ll be eating some cold cheese.”
That kind of physical exhaustion is frequently compounded by emotional pressures, Day says. “There’s not a day that goes by that they’re not put in urgent stress mode, and having to make snap judgments,” she explains. “Sometimes it’s horrific.” After devoting so much brainpower to decisions that could determine another person’s fate, Day says, it’s difficult to muster the mental energy to choose bananas over potato chips.
Nutritionists are just starting to delve into the problem of firefighter cardiovascular health in a systematic way: The food intake analysis that Day and her colleagues conducted was unprecedented. “It’s not a largely studied topic,” she says.” Even without scholarship, though, firefighters are already acutely aware of the challenges they face in trying to maintain healthy diets.
At Station 5, where firefighters swear they eat boneless, skinless chicken breasts even when there aren’t journalists on the premises, one solution is a shared dinner table. Rheinhold constructed it from a 35-foot extension ladder and retired helmets. “When I see something thrown away, I see treasure,” he says of the craft project.
The table is where firefighters gather “to tell stories from 20 minutes ago or 20 years ago,” Rheinhold says. And no matter what’s set upon it, the table is where they come to express the sorrow, gratitude and hope central to their profession.
“Keep us safe when we make a call,” Gates said in prayer before the chicken, rice, asparagus, salad and Hawaiian rolls were served. And everyone responded, “Amen.”