The Firefighter Athlete

By Ben Schloegel

When it comes to being physically prepared to do this job, you most likely will fall into one of two categories: an asset or a liability. When your job is broken down to its most fundamental element and level, you can either put your body—your single greatest resource—to task when it matters the most, or you will impede and impair fireground operations when they matter the most.

Assets and liabilities: The basic balance sheet of the fire service or any business. Gear and gizmos are great, but human bodies get the work done. Some simply cannot do this job, especially when it matters most. Perhaps you've spent too much time taking advantage of the downtime; you've lost motivation; and you lack the power, speed, endurance, range of motion, or physical ability to perform when it is absolutely essential. It's a harsh reality, but so are the consequences if and when this job demands you be able to kick into action. If this is you, you've got to kick it into gear, and you need to do so now.

My advice is this: start walking; get yourself on that treadmill for just 20 minutes a day at a brisk pace and do it just five days a week. Don't go crazy and start throwing yourself in with the uber-fit guys just yet. It will discourage you, and any gains your body makes in the short term will be far outpaced by your body’s inability to keep up with and absorb the fitness which will result in a total plateau or, more likely, injury or getting sick. You are paid to a job, and in that job description is a definite level of competence regarding your ability to physically perform. If you cannot do something as fundamental as the candidate physical ability test today, than you should consider doing some soul searching and move to the fire prevention office, where theory is more important the pragmatism.

A captain in my department once told a group of cadets that they were basically professional athletes. I wouldn’t go that far, but his point had some merit. I was delusional enough at one time to call myself a “professional athlete” when I was racing ironman triathlons (even though I did possess a “pro license”). However, I never paid my mortgage with my earnings and endorsements. At the very peak of my output and good luck and cherry picking the right races, I was fortunate enough to minimize my expenses. Real professionals—the guys who are paid for their talent and ability—are at a different level. Those are freaks of nature, true specimens. Fortunately, you don't have to be that good, but you do have to do something which is much more simple and much more important.

You are a professional firefighter (or you are grossly underpaid for your volunteer work) and you need to be able to swing an ax 30 to 40 times consecutively, climb a ladder, advance a fully-charged handline around  a corner and through a ton of debris. Most importantly, you need to be able to self rescue or pull your crew or victims out if they cannot do it themselves.

For example, one of my best friends in my department was bed-ridden this past summer after going through a floor and suffering third-degree burns during a response. He was fighting a fire with some of the most experienced guys on our department, the chief was on scene, and they did everything right. Luck simply was not on his side. Now, his shades drawn and he is under a white blanket with bandages on his hands and back and massive dressings that cover the multiple skin grafts where his fire boots and pants overlapped. He is in tremendous pain as his body fights to heal itself. He is one of the toughest and gutsiest guys I know, and he would be one of the first people I would pick to get my back.

Just two weeks before this, he and I were engaged in an epic squat set at the gym; the kind that has your legs quivering. It was your classic high rep and moderate weight workout; the epitome of functional strength training (a term tossed around a bit too loosely these days). We trained for a solid hour that day and hit everything: legs, core, and cardio. I remember thinking to myself that day how fortunate I was to have him there with me. Few could push it like he could, and if he was suffering, than I knew I was putting in big work.

There is no doubt that the will to live is as strong as anything; it is an incredible motivator, but at some point you have to think about the facts and science behind any event and what portion came down to luck, grace, pure training, and being physically prepared. On hitting the deck, my friend made every effort to protect himself with the handline and to get out. He made an attempt at the ladder and another at the hands his brothers who were reaching out to him. Our Mayday system was executed perfectly, and our guys operated like complete professionals firefighters in every sense of the word. After speaking with him, he indicated that he made a few attempts at getting up off the deck, at least one attempt to climb the ladder before falling backward, and grabbing at those outstretched hands. In just seconds, which no doubt seemed like minutes, he was out. His face piece (which burns up in seconds at 1,000°F) and helmet (which lasts slightly longer depending on the material) had burnt up; both were ruined and completely torched. Were the seconds he spent self-rescuing and drawing himself out of the highest heat the difference between skin grafts around his lower legs and having a completely disfigured face or worse? In all likelihood, probably so. Was the reason he bought those crucial seconds based on his physical conditioning? There is no doubt in my mind.

Multiple hours spent in the gym, running, and biking many miles as well as his ability to lift his own body weight with gear 100 times over were all factors that came into play. His endurance and stamina were every bit as important as his constant practice at being able to critically think when pushed to his physical limitations; this all came into play. The doctors saved his face and probably his life. I know the guys that were on the top of the ladder, and they take care of themselves as well: running to the rigs, grabbing the jumper ladders, deploying them, and hefting a completely awkward 200+ pounds of firefighter and equipment up it was entirely the result of physical labor and the result of proper conditioning.

None of us are paid to watch TV, sleep, or horse around the station. We do those things to take the edge off and break the monotony for why we get paid: doing work and doing our job. We are also paid to take care of ourselves; no one can put a price on my health or physical well-being. I want to retire from this job completely intact and, God willing, I will still be young enough to take on another career and still participate in life and sport. Don't expect this if all you do is watch TV and sleep; at some point, you will have to take care of your greatest resource and tool, your single most important weapon—your body. If your body is out of service, it makes each hoseline, extrication tool, ax, pike pole, fire truck, and every other piece of firefighting equipment obsolete.

The condition you and your body present on the fireground will put you into one of two categories: asset or liability. When you roll up and it matters most, there is no time or place for liabilities. Seconds matter, and the fat gets trimmed; the guys who are assets can produce and will be the difference in whether or not you or I go home at the end of the shift.

What are you doing today to stay fit, get stronger, faster, more agile, and more prepared to do work?

 

Ben Schloegel is a nine-year member of the Kansas City (MO) Fire Department, working on Truck 7's “B” shift. He is also owner of firefighterathlete.com, an online training site and community dedicated to changing the culture of the fire service. Schloegel is a graduate of University of Missouri—Kansas City’s Bloch School of Business, where he was an entrepreneurship scholar. He has competed in 20 Ironman Triathlons, placing in the top 10 in half of them. Schloegel has raced in the Ironman and Xterra world championships in Hawaii numerous times, placing in his division on a few occasions. He also competes in numerous other races and has trained and competed as a boxer.    

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