By Julie Fitz-Gerald
It has become a tool to connect anyone who may be struggling with physical or mental health challenges with life-saving resources.
James Geering, a 46-year-old retired firefighter based in Ocala, Florida, stumbled upon his new role as host of the “Behind the Shield” podcast quite by accident. After losing several firefighter friends in a short amount of time to cancer, heart disease, suicide and overdose, he wanted answers. He went looking for health and wellness podcasts specific to his profession but much to his surprise he couldn’t find a single one. He took it as a sign.
“I have a background in physiology, I’ve been an athlete, so I knew what wellness information is supposed to look like and I was seeing what we were being told, not just in the fire service but as a nation, and I realized there was a huge disconnect.”
The pivotal moment came a few years ago. At an inaugural fundraiser to honour his friends who had died, Geering donned a t-shirt featuring their names — six in total. The fundraiser, sadly, became an annual event and in only four years’ time, his t-shirt was filled with 33 names, each one a friend and fellow firefighter gone too soon. “I was sick and tired of burying my friends. I wanted to find experts in the world and bring them to my community and try to change things, to stop losing people to preventable deaths,” Geering explains.
The Podcast – Behind The Shield
The “Behind the Shield” podcast was born. Launching in September, 2016, the popular podcast has been gaining momentum, shining a light on health and wellness in firefighting and life. “Behind the Shield” is on track to hit a million downloads next month, an impressive stat that indicates just how valued it is by the firefighting community and beyond. It has become a tool to connect anyone who may be struggling with physical or mental health challenges with life-saving resources.
Guests of the show include members of the U.S. military, firefighters, police officers, MMA Fighters, elite coaches, even a former child soldier from Sierra Leone. “I didn’t want to stay in the lane of fire service when there are so many people in the world finding solutions to problems,” says Geering. “I’ll feature anyone on planet earth that has a solution to the problem or someone with a powerful story to share. My whole point is to show that first responders are all people, and even though we love our careers, it’s the human element I want to reach out to.”
The impact that the podcast has had on Geering himself has been immense. “I’m a different person than I was three and a half years ago. Every single guest impacts me differently.”
Focusing on areas like mental health, sleep, exercise and nutrition, Geering says it’s incredible to see how even when speaking with five different guests on a similar topic, their professional findings and advice often overlap, sometimes heavily, which shows just how real their solutions are.
A typical day
For Geering, getting this knowledge out into the world has become his passion. With mental health issues continuing to plague the fire service, not to mention physical illnesses like cancer and heart disease, firefighters are facing very real challenges and Geering believes his podcast can provide the answers and the hope they’re looking for.
Geering has applied much of what he’s learned from his podcast into his daily life, following some key practices that support his positive mental and physical health. His typical day looks like this:
As soon as he wakes up, he hydrates with water, lemon and salt. Then he reads before taking his 12-year-old son, Tai, to the school bus. Next up is a walk with his dog for some much-needed meditation time, followed by exercising on an empty stomach. Now it’s time to sit down and either continue with the writing of his book (scheduled for release in 2020) or conduct interviews for his podcast. Because sitting for long periods can lead to back pain, Geering also implements foundation training, which helps keep his back in good shape. Combining all of this with clean eating as well as yoga and the odd mindfulness app, Geering has found a strong recipe for health.
Tips for success in life and firefighting
Reflecting on his over 15 years in fire service, Geering has an important message for his younger self: “Believe. Looking back, one of the things I suffered so much from was imposter syndrome. Feeling like I was just skating through life, without the courage to stand up and make an impact in the world. Even though I was making an impact in fire service, which I was proud of, I didn’t give myself permission to make an impact bigger than that,” he explains.
His advice to fellow firefighters is to find what makes you tick and take it as far as you can. “Step up; have the confidence to believe in yourself.”
Geering says there are three habits you can begin implementing right now that will make a huge difference in your day-to-day well-being. First, educate yourself on the importance of sleep. “Without sleep everything else falls by the wayside. You can eat the cleanest diet and exercise, but if you’re not sleeping, it’s almost not worth the effort,” he explains.
Second, punctuate your shifts. Geering says to take 30 minutes at the end of a shift to decompress before jumping in your car and heading home. “Walk around the fire station, go to the gym, try to deregulate your mind so that when you go home you can slide into the husband/dad [or wife/mom] role.”
Third is mobility. By maintaining mobility, firefighters have a better chance of avoiding injury on the job. “Stretching and moving the joints around through practices like yoga or foundation training is very important, especially for us men. We tend to get very tight and then injuries happen.”
With over 300 episodes featuring some of the greatest minds on the planet in the health and wellness sector, the “Behind the Shield” podcast is a free library of resources made especially for firefighters. “The idea that things are irreversible is complete nonsense. There are so many things that we can reverse and there are so many things that are preventable, especially in mental health. Knowledge is power.”
Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance journalist, author and motivational speaker who is passionate about sharing stories of hope and inspiration – two things our world desperately needs.
Photo Supplied By James Geering