By Michael Krueger
You may feel that you are in the best shape of your life, or consider yourself to be the best conditioned person on your department, but what does that really mean? There’s an old saying, “Among the blind the one-eyed man is king.”
Lying in bed, late at night, unable to sleep, your mind looping, you know how you’re doing. You know if you aren’t keeping up with your continuing education. You know if you’re mentoring the new recruits. You know if you’re maintaining your readiness and your fitness.
These thoughts can keep you awake at night and beg the question, are you as good as you can be?
Recently, there has been some renewed discussions regarding standards and the manner of the testing of these standards in the military. It concerns women being accepted into combat rolls and thus into the elite ranks of the Special Forces. I’m not wading into that, just let it be said that I have trained some women who could easily qualify for any Special Forces they might want to be a part of, and I’ve worked with a great many men who wouldn’t have a chance. My point is that it’s all relative.
What I want to talk about is your personal set of fitness standards. These are the fitness levels at which you feel comfortable performing your duties and living your life, for that matter. The questions only you can answer are, “Are your standards high enough? Are you living up to your standards? Are you good enough to take on whatever your job and your life throw at you?” This doesn’t involve your department or your peers or your family per se; on some level it does, since you don’t want to let them down. But, this is a dark place you can only go alone. It’s where your mind goes at 0200 when you can’t sleep and you find yourself lying awake, staring at the ceiling with every doubt and insecurity you have gnawing at your insides like a rabid wolverine.
If someone else asked you if you are strong enough, fast enough, conditioned enough, practiced enough, and educated enough to be an elite firefighter, my guess is you would say, “Yes.” If you were to you ask yourself those same questions when no one else is around, what would your answer be?
Have you ever finished a physically demanding call and thought, “Man, that could have gone sideways really fast and ended really ugly; I got lucky”? After your shift, while driving home, you might find yourself having to admit that you aren’t as prepared physically as you could be. I don’t know how often this happens, but from my Coast Guard experience, I know that it can and it does; and if it happens, even just once, it’s one time too many.
So, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to ensure that, to the best of your ability, it won’t happen again? Simple, live up to your standards, and honor your responsibility to yourself, your department, and your community … and get yourself in shape.
Only you know if you are indeed good enough to be realistically comfortable with where you are. It doesn’t matter what the normative data say, or what the department says (OK maybe a little), or what anyone else thinks; this is a personal decision and one that you have to live with. There are firefighters whose fitness is not close to where it should be and they are perfectly capable of doing their jobs, at least until they aren’t. I don’t know if or when that moment may come where their fitness or skills aren’t good enough to meet the demand. They may go through their entire career and never be faced with the prospect of having to rely on someone else to risk their life because they weren’t capable of doing their job.
As for you, I’m sure you never want to be faced with that moment. You want to do all you can do to ensure that you are always at the top of your game when the call comes. This is where you set that standard. This is when you decide for yourself if you are willing to do what needs to be done to be an elite firefighter, or not.
How Do You Decide?
As I said, this is personal. It involves a lot of soul searching and questions that would make you uncomfortable if someone else were to ask them. Fortunately, no one else is asking; it’s just you talking to you.
Do you remember when you were a kid in school, sitting down at your desk and finding out there was going to be a pop quiz that morning? The thoughts that ran through your head could’ve been anything from “Did I pay attention yesterday?” to “Why didn’t I read that chapter last night?” to my favorite, “If I get through this without failing, I am so going to study next time”–and did you? On the other hand, how many times did you think, “That’s OK, I’ve got this”?
So now, honestly, think of the times you’ve been in a situation where you had doubts regarding your preparedness. I hope it came out alright, but how close was it to being a disaster? What ran through your head? Did you think about your lack of physical strength or endurance and how you really need to work on that? Or maybe you thought about that time you were just so tired that you couldn’t keep your eyes open during training and how the information you didn’t retain would’ve come in handy. Or maybe you just haven’t been as diligent and disciplined regarding your commitment to yourself and your department as you know you could be.
Only you know the answers to these questions. Maybe you’ve never had an experience that shook you to your core. Maybe you have always felt that you were fully prepared and up to the task at hand. Maybe you feel you are the best of the best and project a swaggering “Bring it on” attitude. Then again, maybe up until now you’ve just been very, very lucky.
I hope you can answer these nagging, annoying but oh so important questions. Honesty in self-assessment is very hard, but if you want to change, if you want results, then you’ve got to tough it out. Equally important are then setting your goals, planning your actions, and doing what needs to be done–not just today or tomorrow, but every day.
If all goes well in you career, you may never be severely challenged outside of a controlled training environment. If that’s the case, when you get in over your head, you’ll be able to call a mulligan, identify your mistakes, and correct them without anyone getting hurt and no losses except for a little pride.
If, on the other hand, you do find yourself up to your ears in a situation you’ve only seen in your nightmares, it’s good to know that you’ve trained, practiced, studied, and literally done everything you could to be prepared for just that situation, and in that case …
Bring it on!
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 [email protected]