By Michael Krueger
I would suspect that everyone who reads this is aware of the exploits of the Navy Seals, the Army Rangers, the USAF Para-Rescue, and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Rescue Swimmers. The Seals and the Rangers are the people on point for the most dangerous of combat missions. They are the elite of the elite; no one in the world is better at what they do than they are.
The USAF Para-Rescue and the USCG Rescue Swimmers are also the best at what they do, and what they do is save lives. They also share a motto, “So that others may live”; that’s what you do as well.
Are you the elite of elite?
Back in the Day
Many years ago when I served in the USCG, we didn’t have rescue swimmers. We were told that if you went into the water during a rescue, odds were that both you and the victim were going to die. That didn’t stop us from going in when we felt that that was the appropriate action. There are many Coast Guard veterans from my era who can boast both a letter of reprimand for going into the water and a commendation for the results of that action. During a sortie, decisions had to be made, and there are people alive today because of those decisions.
Back then, very few units had formal fitness programs either. Most of us understood the importance of keeping in shape and fit for duty, but the exact meaning of “being in shape” was up for debate. Officially, this lack of fitness was only an issue if they were trying to prevent someone from re-enlisting. Otherwise, they mostly turned a blind eye to even obviously overweight and out-of-shape individuals.
Now, the USCG Rescue Swimmers are some of the most respected members of the entire service. Only a very few of those who want to be a part of this group are accepted. Of those who are accepted for the “A School,” only a small number graduate and have the privilege of deploying as Aviation Survival Technicians.
The dedication, operational knowledge, and skills of these men and women are outstanding and, when coupled with exemplary military bearing, you truly have an impressive package. Along with regular continuing education requirements, they also must be at the peak of physical conditioning and maintain that conditioning for the duration of their careers. It doesn’t matter if they are straight out of school or a 20-year veteran, the requirements are the same.
Odds are, if you’re reading this, you are a firefighter or know a firefighter. You may be a career firefighter on a large city department, a volunteer on a small rural department, or somewhere in between. It doesn’t matter, since you have all decided to accept the challenge, “So that others may live.”
Much of your on-duty time is taken up in the normal mundane tasks that every department needs to do. You do equipment maintenance, fire inspections, training, cleaning (probably more than you would like), maybe meal preparation, and community relations.
If you are a career firefighter on a big city department, you may respond to multiple structure fires during a shift and you are the backup for countless EMS calls ranging from cardiac events to car crashes, violence, and industrial accidents. If you are on a small volunteer department, you may never respond to a large fire, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t ready. This is what you do and why you are here, and it’s indispensable to your community.
Let’s not forget about those of you who are primarily “Desk Jockeys” either. You must also be at the top of your firefighting game in addition to being the best at whatever administrative or clerical duties you have. It’s easy, but unacceptable, to let your physical readiness slide because you are very busy with your office duties. Maintaining your readiness has many obvious benefits, but department cohesion between administrative personnel and the rank-and-file is a huge one. Being able to physically and operationally come out of your office ready to go when the alarm sounds shows that you take your obligations seriously and that no one needs to wonder if you are indeed ready.
Because you are a professional, you train a lot when you aren’t on a call. You constantly hone your skills so that when the call comes you are ready to go. On a search and rescue boat crew, we lived by the motto “Don’t wait for me,” implying that each crew member will be ready when the time comes.
So, how is your physical and operational readiness? Are you ready to perform at the top of your game for hour upon hour if the situation calls for it? Is your aerobic capacity up to snuff, is your muscular endurance in order, and are you strong enough to do whatever is required so that others may live?
During my service in the USCG, I spent a fair amount of time piloting a desk. Most of my time was occupied with budgets and regulations. I was also a member of a boat crew and when the search and rescue bell rang, I was on the boat and we were underway in less than two minutes; that was standard operating procedure. The expectation was that I would be ready for whatever came my way, despite most of my time being spent on paperwork. That was the reality.
I made sure that all my skills, including physical, mental, and operational, were always honed to perfection. The thought that I might be placed in a situation in which I was not prepared was unthinkable. We trained and trained; we were fortunate in that the Officer in Charge of the station understood that the primary focus of our station was “So that others may live.” He made sure that we always remembered that that was our mission; everything else was filler.
It doesn’t matter if you are a career firefighter or a volunteer, you are all professionals and you need to remember that. You can’t bask in the reflected honor and glory of others. You must make sure you are ready to perform flawlessly when the call comes; and one day, it surely will.
You need to ask yourself if you are proficient in all aspects of your job. You need to ask yourself if you are able to fill in if someone on your crew goes down. You must also ask yourself if you are physically capable of doing what needs to be done.
Numerous tests are available for you to assess your fitness both physically and operationally. Whether or not you can “pass” these tests isn’t really the point. What it really comes down to is after a call that resulted in casualties, how can you can answer this question: “Was I prepared and did I do to the best of my abilities what needed to be done?” If you can answer that in the affirmative, then you have done well. If you aren’t sure, you’ll need to do some serious soul searching ….
My Dad had a tattoo he had gotten prior to going overseas in World War II. It simply said, “Death before dishonor.” When I enlisted in the USCG, he reminded me of that, and for the first time I truly understood what it meant.
You have taken on a sacred trust with the men, women, and children of your community. They believe that when they call for help you will be there and you will make it all good again. We all know that you can’t save everyone, but it’s also understood that you will do all that you can to honor that trust. When you can’t make everything good again, you must know deep down inside that you did everything you could.
In my experience, the area where most first responders fall short is in their physical conditioning. On a long call, they might need to rest because they didn’t train their cardiovascular system sufficiently; they are weak because they didn’t train their muscular strength and endurance. They fail because they haven’t trained up to their capacity. They were more than happy to march in the Fourth of July parade and to accept the accolades of being a firefighter, but they didn’t do the work they needed to do to be physically ready when it really mattered.
If you see yourself even a little in this description, then it’s time to reassess your commitment.
At the End of the Day
We used to have a saying, “The Blue Jacket Manual says you need to go out; it doesn’t say anything about coming back.” I knew a Master Chief who didn’t agree with that at all. He insisted that you were obligated by a sacred trust to go out, but you also owed it to your crew, your family, and your country to come back.
So many are depending on you…
…don’t disappoint them.
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]