Firefighter Fitness at the Forefront

By Mike Krueger

What comes to mind when you think of a firefighter? Is it the images of the selfless sacrifices made so willingly by so many on 9/11? Perhaps it is the smokejumpers, parachuting into a raging inferno to protect people, property, and the environment. Or maybe it is funeral for a 56-year-old retiree who enjoyed his retirement for only six years before succumbing to a heart attack. If the last scenario is the one that comes to mind, then you are probably aware of the real price that so many firefighters pay. Not that those other mental images are wrong, but the sobering latter picture represents the bottom line for the average firefighter–dead at 56, most likely because of a heart attack. To make matters worse, it is all preventable.

The mystique of the firefighter goes back a long way. Ask pretty much any male (and many female) adults, and it is likely that at one point in their life they wanted to be a firefighter. They saw the uniform and the truck, heard the siren, and that was it. Those who pursued their dream took many different roads to get to the firehouse, some by way of the military, some as volunteers, and others through the technical school route. In every case, they got there with hard work, long study, and years of incessant training.

I’m not a firefighter. I was a U.S. Coast Guardsman, so I know about the dedication it takes to risk your life to preserve and protect the lives of others. This is not a passion to be taken lightly. I have the privilege of knowing a number of firefighters and the good luck never to have directly needed their services. I have the utmost respect for them, but I also see that troubling trend toward early death. This is not something to be ignored.

I understand there is a minor rift beginning to show between the new breed of firefighter and the old guard. I’m not going to get involved with unions and contracts, but there is talk in some departments of having minimum fitness standards. It is always a touchy subject when a person’s livelihood is on the line because of the outcome of a test, but one must keep in mind that their life–and maybe the lives of their fellow firefighters–is really what is on the line. If one person on a team is unable to perform well because of a lack of fitness, it will bring down the entire team. That can’t be allowed to happen; far too much is at stake.

On the bright side, the process of becoming and maintaining physical fitness isn’t as arduous as many believe. It can be as simple as sensible eating and a reasonable workout three or four times per week. As in all aspects of life, how hard you work depends on how much you want. Often, once a person sees how much benefit he can derive from a few changes, he becomes much more interested in seeing just how far he can go. For a firefighter, the ultimate is The Combat Challenge. This competition is not to be taken lightly; those who compete are some of the fittest athletes you will find anywhere. These are the men and women who exemplify the standards that all firefighters should be striving to attain.

Is this a challenge you are willing to undertake? In my opinion, it should be. The Combat Challenge is the ultimate test of your fitness and functional skills as a firefighter. Why would any firefighter not want to participate? I doubt it is fear; firefighters are the people who face the most extreme conditions imaginable. Perhaps some firefighters just don’t accept the idea that they need to be tested in this way to find out if they really do have the physical skills to do whatever comes their way. Granted, many firefighters will never have their skills put to the supreme test, but you never know. It is a good idea to know that you have stretched yourself to the absolute limit and proved to yourself that you are the best there is. When you know you are the best, you project that energy to your fellow firefighters as well as to the public.

Once you begin training for this competition, you understand why this extraordinary level of fitness is exactly what you need to do your job to the utmost. When you feel the strength and confidence this training will bring you, you will wonder why you never did it before. You will also have absolute confidence in your fellow firefighters, knowing that they too can do whatever is asked of them. As we used to say on the boats, “Don’t wait for me.” We all knew that everyone would be there ready and capable to do any job that came their way.

You owe it to yourself, your fellow firefighters, and your community to be in the best physical condition possible. Now is the time to begin. If you need guidance, it is available to you. If you need motivation, just look around you and see all the people who are depending on you to be the absolute best.

And, last but not least, think of all those years of retirement after age 56 that you will be able to enjoy with your family and your health intact.

Michael Krueger is an independent personal trainer in Madison, Wisconsin. He is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He received his introduction to fitness training while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. He has provided some nutrition and fitness training counseling to the Fitchburg (WI) Fire Department based on his understanding of the risks and demands involved in firefighting, which he had gained though his military experience.

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