The Professional Volunteer Fire Department, Part 8 – Physical Fitness

By Thomas A. Merrill

Volunteer firefighters come from all walks of life. Indeed, our ranks are filled with volunteers of all shapes and sizes. However, when the alarm bell rings and our citizens are in need, it is expected that those answering the call are not only technically competent and prepared to help but physically capable as well. Being a volunteer firefighter affords no excuse for not being physically up to the task; the professional volunteer firefighter should recognize this and strive to take care of himself through proper physical conditioning.

Firefighters should need no extra motivation to get started or continue on with some type of regular workout routine. Look at the statistics and get a reality check; the number of firefighters passing away from sudden cardiac events is alarming. Firefighters face a multitude of dangers. Every day, their health and safety is threatened by toxic smoke, high heat, and chaotic work environments. But, heart attacks continue to be one of the leading causes of firefighter line of duty deaths. Hopefully, by focusing on physical fitness and trying to take just a little better care of ourselves, we can get this number to come down.  

Firefighters can have many hours of sedentary activity. In the volunteer ranks, firefighters can go long periods of time between calls. Our work and family obligations can make it difficult to respond for extended periods of time. This time off and lack of physical activity can be as hazardous as fighting a fire. When we finally do respond to a call, it may turn into a labor intensive operation. Or, we find ourselves getting out of bed in the middle of the night, placing huge demands on our system. The sudden, intense energy demand that is needed to fight a fire or handle an emergency puts a firefighter who is not in good physical condition in grave danger. In my opinion, a firefighter’s lack of physical fitness can be viewed as a matter of public safety as well as a threat to one’s individual health.

Now, anyone who knows me certainly understands I am not the poster child for the big, brawny, strapping firefighter. I have always had to work extra hard to be able to keep up with those firefighters who, because of their sheer size and strength, excel on the fireground.  But, I have always felt that as long as I am a certified structural, interior firefighter, I will be prepared technically AND physically, no matter what is asked of me on the fireground. That’s certainly what our citizens expect from the professional firefighter.

Most firefighters I know are sports fans. So, I like to point out that coaches and athletes have long understood the role regular exercise plays in injury prevention and on-field performance. So, firefighters need to understand that this is not limited to just athletes. We must adopt the philosophy that regular exercise and physical activity are important to our overall well being.

What can we do? The first step is to recognize that taking better care of ourselves regularly is just as important as attending and participating in regular drill and training activities. Develop the mindset that you will do this. There are a variety of activities and ways to do so.

First, any new firehouse being constructed today should include a fitness room. In some instances, it may be viewed by government leaders and building planners as an unnecessary expense. But again, one need only look at the statistics to realize how important this really is. In addition, having the workout room at the firehouse can help with response times. We want our firefighters at the firehouse! One of our former chiefs actually missed a working fire because he was working out at a local gym. This was before our firehouse had a fitness room, and had he been working out in our station he never would have missed the fire!

Is your department fortunate enough to have a workout room? If so, you must take advantage of it! Most firefighters I know have no problem spending an hour or two in the clubroom discussing politics and world events and really accomplishing nothing at all. Start using part of that time walking on the treadmill (heck, talk politics while walking on the treadmill) or pick up some weights, use the jump rope, or engage in any of the other choices available to you in your fitness room. The important thing is to do something and make it a regular occurrence.

If your department does not have a workout room, see if it’s possible to offer your firefighters a membership in a local gym. See if you can negotiate a reduced rate for your members. Some departments have been fortunate enough to have their local gym offer free membership to the firefighters in lieu of a yearly fund drive donation. Other departments actually pay the cost of the membership for their members. Gym memberships and firehouse fitness rooms are also great tools for recruiting new members.

Work physical fitness into some of your regular drills. I see nothing wrong with a fun “gym night” involving some physical activity. One of our local departments emptied out the apparatus bay and played dodge ball while wearing turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus! Develop your own combat challenge, simulating a variety of fireground firefighting tasks and physical demands for firefighters such as climbing, hoisting, chopping, and dragging. Our current chief embraced this idea several years ago, and it has been accepted readily by our membership. These drills are also great team building exercises.  

If there are charity runs, walks, and competitions in your community, get a fire department team together and participate. Firefighters can train together and motivate each other to work out and prepare. It also inspires friendly competition and is just good, pure fun! We like to outfit our firefighters with department T-shirts; when they are running in our community, citizens see them embracing physical fitness, which certainly contributes to a professional reputation. Recently, while participating in a local charity race, people watching along the route recognized us as their local firefighters and cheered us on. Afterward, we mingled and socialized with our residents and other race participators, generating good will and positive public relations with these people.  

Fire department leaders and officers should lead by example and embrace physical fitness as well. They cannot use the excuse that they are too busy and do not have the time. Besides, the rank and file loves to see the chiefs and other officers sweating a little bit. When new members join, tell them physical fitness is important to the job, and encourage them to participate.  

In addition to embracing physical fitness, departments have an obligation to offer programs and take measures to benefit the health and wellness of their firefighters. All departments should offer their members regular physical examinations. If possible, they should offer more than a just basic physical. We have found that for many of our firefighters—especially the younger ones—the fire department doctor is their one and only doctor, and the fire department physical is the only regular exam they ever receive. More than once, one of our members had a serious medical condition discovered early enough for successful treatment simply because he received the regular fire department physical exam.  

Some firefighters might not like me saying this, but I really believe we need to take it easy on the post-drill, post-meeting, and post-do anything meals. Firefighters love to eat, and seem to have to have food after every activity. We always seem to reward our members with food. In many cases, we find ourselves eating a meal at 9:30 or 10 o’clock at night, and it is usually the second dinner of the night for us. In my locality, it often involves very heavy and fatty foods like pizza and wings (heck, I am from Buffalo after all). Is this necessary? If we must eat following a drill or meeting, maybe we should strive to incorporate more healthy meals into the mix.  

Consider bringing in a health and fitness expert to speak on a drill night. This can prove extremely informative and benefit your members in a variety of ways. They can talk about proper nutrition, strength training, general fitness, and so many other topics important to your member’s health and well being.

Proper hydration is important to our overall health. It is especially true when fighting fires. Studies have shown that being properly hydrated while fighting a fire can reduce the chance of a cardiac event. I know of departments that place bottles of water in the cabs of the rigs so firefighters can hydrate on the way to an incident. I also know of firefighters who keep water in their personal vehicles so they can do the same thing. That’s creative thinking.

Is your department staging paramedic units at significant incidents? It’s a great idea to have a dedicated trained crew close by to render immediate assistance not only to citizens we protect but to our firefighters as well. If possible, station the paramedic crew or assign a separate crew to the rehab station at the fire scene. The rehab station is where firefighters can take a break and rehydrate before undertaking further duties. Part of the rehab time should be spent having the EMS crew evaluating the firefighters before they head back into action.    

One last thought: If one of your firefighters complains of not feeling well at or shortly after an incident, do not let them leave! Direct them to receive immediate medical attention so they can be properly and thoroughly evaluated. We are hearing way too many stories about firefighters complaining of not feeling well and being sent home. On their way home or after arriving home they suffer a cardiac event and often times nobody’s there to help them. And, sadly, often times it’s too late to help them.

Firefighters are expected to be well trained, competent, and ready to respond to their communities’ calls for help. Just like their departments, they need to enact policies and programs focusing on health and wellness; firefighters have a duty and an obligation to embrace physical fitness to ensure they are capable of performing up to the level for which they are certified. That’s what the public expects. It’s what we should expect of each other as professional volunteer firefighters.

 

Tom Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at tamerrill63@aol.com

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