Belihar reflects on career caring for first responders |

Firefighters frequently check each piece of equipment to ensure everything is in top working order for any type of emergency call they may receive. But who checks the firefighters? 

For the past 24 years, Dr. Robert “Bob” Belihar, a retired Air Force brigadier general and medical director at CareHere HealthSigns Center, has been taking on the challenge of keeping the Franklin, Brentwood and, most recently, Spring Hill firefighters in top working order, both physically and mentally.

After 52 years in the medical field, on April 30, Belihar hung up his shield and retired. However, CareHere HealthSigns, which uses comprehensive health assessments in conjunction with lifestyle management as the primary approach to health and aging management, will continue his work of caring for first responders.

“It’s been wonderful,” he said. “My experience with Franklin through the years, I have never been more optimistic about the Franklin Fire Department for the future. It’s painful for me; they’re family.”

Due to the nature of their work, firefighters, like law enforcement officers and other first responders, are at high risk of experiencing depression, substance abuse and divorce, all of which impact work and relationships. 

“My philosophy and my goal have always been to help firefighters remain in the best shape possible so they’ll do their job well — not just as a firefighter, but as a husband and a father — and they live as long as possible,” Belihar said. 

As a medical doctor in the Air Force, Belihar spent many years as a flight surgeon and command surgeon. He has a keen understanding of first responders.

The first thing he did was establish a relationship of trust and caring — the same relationship he had with his airmen.

“Through our relationships, what we have done is save lives,” Belihar said.

Although he performed regular and complete comprehensive health assessments, the most important part of his program involved getting know the firefighters so they would talk about their issues. That meant on-site visits.

His first visit to the Franklin Fire Department was when Don Clayborne was fire chief in the late 1990s. It wasn’t the warmest reception. 

“They thought I was going to clean house or ground people,” Belihar said. “The whole idea is they believe in me, and I believe in them. And they trust me. Firefighters are a collegial, close-knit group. I enjoy that.”

To guide them towards a healthy lifestyle they need to perform their job and live longer, Belihar saw the firefighters in his office and visited them at fire stations quarterly.

He spent time talking with them about their lives and was straight with them. He encouraged them to use the exercise equipment provided at the stations — one of the best ways to decompress, Belihar said.

He showed up at meal time to check on their diet, and he challenged them to set goals and presented medals to those who reached goals or met challenges.

“Spending time at their workplace is important,” Belihar said. “It’s important they know you care, you’re interested. As an anti-aging specialist, I see them as they are, and I see where they’re going. Sudden cardiac arrest is the No. 1 cause of death for firefighters.”

One of the challenges Belihar conquered was in January 2012. He walked the circuit of the Franklin fire stations — 21 miles. At the time, there were six stations; now, there are eight.

To prove it could be done, he walked the circuit a week earlier, stopping at each station to say hello. Belihar was 70 years old in 2012, and his own pedometer read 43,969 miles.  

“It was my intent to encourage and perhaps even inspire Franklin firefighters to become more fit,” he said. “I thought that since I am 70 years old and have already completed the task at hand, some might consider that a challenge.”

According to historians, in biblical times, a day’s journey was 20-25 miles, about the same as the 35-meter challenge, Belihar added.

Nine firefighters took up the challenge; two made it at least half way, and five completed it. They started off at 6 a.m. from Station 2 heading to Station 6 and made it back to Station 2 at 2:30 p.m. The walkers took a break at each station and stopped for lunch at the Fieldstone Farms Publix. Those who completed the challenge were presented with a Commendation Award, a certificate and bragging rights. 

Belihar recalled the time he saw one of the fire department trucks at a local Publix. He went in and “ran into” the firefighters, who were shopping for dinner. He saw strawberries and mushrooms — a good start. The doctor paused when he heard beef stroganoff was the main course. 

“I thought about a ‘Do Not Feed the Firefighters’ sign,” he said with a laugh. 

As an Air Force flight surgeon, Belihar’s most important job was keeping Air Force firefighters in top shape so they could safely perform their duties. 

He retired from the Air Force in 1997 and spent the next 24 years making sure civilian firefighters were in shape and prepared physically and mentally to perform their job. Now, he’s taking time to enjoy and mentor his three children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; take some mission trips to Cuba; continue to indulge in his insatiable curiosity; and remain an advocate for others.

With a personal philosophy of, “Start where you are, use what you have and do what you can,” Belihar will surely stay busy.


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