By Michael Krueger
Photo by Todd Toussaint
In the December 2010 issue of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, there is a paper titled “Energy Costs and Energy Sources During a Simulated Firefighting Activity.” It details research done at the Department of Human Movement and Sport Science, University of Rome Foro Italico and the Department of Physical Training of Italian Firefighter Corps, Rome, Italy. The authors set out to determine how much energy is needed to complete various firefighting activities and precisely which metabolic sources provide this energy. It has some very interesting findings.
Caution, Science Content
They had the subjects perform four consecutive simulated firefighting tasks as quickly as they could one after another. The tasks were as follows: perform a child rescue that involved climbing a fireman’s ladder and descending a three-story building carrying a 20-kg (44-lb.) child dummy, followed by a 250-meter run; then complete a maze escape in a dark chamber, followed by a second 250-meter run. All tasks were done in full turnout gear wearing SCBA. This last item is very important. Most tests on firefighters done in laboratories are not done in full gear, which in my opinion makes no sense at all.
As one would have guessed, the running task put the highest physical demand on the subjects and the darkened maze escape was cognitively the most difficult, took the most time, and had the largest variation in completion time between individuals.
It is apparent that job demands vary greatly between the tasks encountered while fighting a fire. The highest physical demand was found during the running task. Firefighters don’t always get to run in an unobstructed straight line; they may need to sprint though hazards when rescuing a victim or escaping from a dangerous environment. It is therefore recommended that firefighters train not only in basic aerobic fitness but also in speed and agility.
At the completion of the four evolutions, high lactic acid levels were observed and heart rates were still at elevated levels 30 minutes after the final task was completed. Heart rates increased from the first task (child rescue) on and remained elevated even while firefighters mostly walked while negotiating the darkened maze escape. The continued elevated heart rates accompanied by lower oxygen demand give credence to the conclusion that the psychological and emotional stress of working in unpredictable environmental conditions imposes a huge, persistent cardiac load on firefighters, especially while experiencing an elevated thermoregulatory strain and increased cognitive workload.
A couple of things jumped out at me while reading this paper. One is a comparison of the Italian firefighters and the firefighters I have tested. The ages were very similar, about 33 years old. The heights were similar as well, about 5’10”. I can’t speak directly to skills training, but I believe that the firefighters I have worked with are highly skilled and well trained and would compare favorably with those in the study. The biggest difference I noticed was in body weight. The Italian firefighters in the study averaged 165 lbs., and the firefighters I have tested average 199 lbs. That is a considerable difference, and I would have to believe that it may have some effect on task performance but almost certainly a significant effect on recovery.
It was noted that The Italian Firefighting Corps has no organized, structured physical training or required yearly evaluations to ensure that their members meet minimum standards necessary to safely and efficiently accomplish the tasks required in firefighting. This appears to be the norm in the fire service internationally and is no different than many fire departments in the United States.
Despite that single criticism, I would wholeheartedly agree with their conclusion regarding the need for improved fitness programs.
Too many firefighters end their careers dealing with a disability that might have been avoided. Firefighting is difficult and dangerous enough without the added risk of being physically unable to adequately handle the challenges. I have never met a firefighter who didn’t want to be the best he or she can be and when given the opportunity for additional training didn’t take advantage of it—that is, except in the area of physical fitness. For some reason, improving fitness is a tough sell even when the department provides incentives, time, education, and opportunity.
With the understanding of the importance of your mission, you can work among your peers to change attitudes and improve the overall health and fitness of the fire service and, by example, society in general. It is a big job and it won’t be easy, but that has never stopped you before.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com.