Wellness and Fitness: Is It About Time for a Mandatory Program?

By Peter Bryan

Wellness and fitness should be an everyday activity for firefighters. We train most days. We generally do maintenance and upkeep activities most shifts. We check out our apparatus and personal protective equipment (PPE) daily. So why don’t we participate in fitness and wellness activities every shift or day when on duty?

What does it take to make our personnel’s wellness a top priority, as are other operational tasks that we conduct? What will it take to make daily wellness and fitness activities mandatory? Can we implement a policy that places importance on these activities?

Our job is a physical one. Can you imagine military personnel (especially soldiers or marines) preparing for their jobs without fitness? Can you imagine professional and collegiate athletes preparing for a season or game without conditioning? Would you expect our Olympic and Paralympic contenders to enter the games without regular fitness development?

Firefighting, Rescue, and EMS Tasks Necessitate Wellness and Fitness

Let’s consider the tasks that we do that suggest to you the need to be fit to do the job. First, many agencies have developed an “essential job functions” list that describes the physical tasks of firefighting. Those essential job functions include things like climbing in and riding in apparatus, donning PPE and self-contained breathing apparatus, climbing ladders, pulling hose, using tools, searching for victims and crawling on the floors, rappelling and other rescue techniques, and so forth. And this is just the beginning of the list. We generally rate how important the task is and how often we perform it. This should give you an idea of how physical the job can be. The physical tasks may not occur every shift (depending on the agency and incident activity level) and perhaps the frequency of the physical tasks is not the important point. The idea is that, on any shift, personnel may be called on to perform extremely physical work and in hazardous environments.

Next, review all accident reports to determine cause and prevention measures. The fire service often provides near-miss reports and “green sheet” preliminary accident report information for initial and urgent corrective action. Accidents that involve any physical aspects of the job also point to the physical nature of the job.

Internet and professional association electronic news reports on accidents and our near-miss incidents and deaths call attention to the physical nature of the firefighting, too. Here are some details that jump out at me from a few reports: “Captain was leading wildland fire training with inmate firefighters…he fell ill…later pronounced dead, fire gutted a house…injured two firefighters when a roof collapsed on them.” Any near-miss incident should certainly call our attention to the frequency and severity of physical mishaps on the job.

Injury Programs Should Demonstrate to Employees a True Desire to Improve Wellness

Wellness, fitness, and injury programs can be synonymous and concurrent, just as counseling and discipline can occur at the same time. It could be of great benefit to get employees engaged and involved to develop programs to help reduce injuries and return personnel to full duty more quickly. Implementing wellness and fitness programs can and does have a tremendous effect on the overall health and well-being of employees.

Much has been said about empowering employees, quality circles, improving customer service, and so on. Injury programs are just customer service for the internal customer. We should look for ways to improve our injury programs, just as we do our business programs.

We have the knowledge and tools available to prevent most overexertion injuries, cardiovascular problems, muscular strains and sprains, etc. If we have the tools and knowledge, shouldn’t we implement programs to ensure that “everyone goes home” after each shift and each incident?

Injuries resulting from on-duty programs are often cited as a reason to restrict or prohibit on-duty fitness and wellness training. Many controls should be included in any on-duty program, especially if the program is mandatory.

Administrators need to know what type of fitness activities cause injuries. Many times those programs include lifting competitions, “jungle” or competitive basketball, volleyball, some commercial fitness programs that are not implemented slowly (high-impact, fast-moving, etc.), and “invented” workouts. Programs or workouts that cause injuries must be prohibited. If we don’t prevent injuries, often the “risk management” office will put an end to wellness and fitness programs before the long-term benefits are realized. Be proactive and prevent injuries.

Fitness Programs and National Standards

A sign in one fitness club reads, “Everything in Moderation,” and you should consider programs that emphasize this philosophy, instead of more “injury-prone” programs. Examples of such firefighter programs include the following:

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Fire Service Joint Labor Wellness/Fitness Initiative program is designed for incumbent personnel. The program includes information on these topics.

  • Medical evaluation
  • Fitness evaluation
  • Injury and medical rehabilitation
  • Behavioral health
  • Cost justification
  • Data collection
  • Implementation


TACFIT FIREFIGHTER was designed by firefighters to provide a comprehensive health and fitness program. Programs are based on the principle of circular strength training and provide a holistic and health-first approach. The program has been engineered from specific firefighter tasks to provide a complete program that delivers injury prevention, strength, strength endurance, power, mobility, and greater expressible strength.


The Orange County (CA) Fire Authority (OCFA) Illness and Fitness Program (WEFIT) serves to provide OCFA firefighters and professionals with knowledge, support, and opportunities to improve their physical health, wellness, and fitness to enhance job performance and an overall healthy personal lifestyle. The program includes information on these topics.

  • Greater stamina and strength
  • Decreased risk of death
  • Increased quality of life
  • Decreased risk of injury
  • Decreased risk of disability from disease and injury
  • Improved performance
  • Reduction of anxiety, stress, tension, and depression
  • Increased energy and self-esteem
  • Enhanced recovery from strenuous and exhaustive work


These three above are examples of firefighter programs, but there are many, many other programs out there, including commercial fitness and workout routines, which often take the form of DVDs with training manuals and workout schedules.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has published a recommended standard intended to provide minimum recommended standards to enable firefighters to do their job and reduce injury and death. Many fire service personnel may not know that the standard even exists; it isn’t mandatory or law, unless the local agency, state, or Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopts it.

NPFA Standard 1583, Standard for Health-Related Fitness Programs for Fire Department Members, indicates the scope as follows, “This standard establishes the minimum requirements for the development, implementation, and management of a health-related fitness program (HRFP) for members of the fire department involved in emergency operations.” It references NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, and NFPA 1582, Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments.

The standard includes chapters that detail fitness assessment and exercise and fitness programs. It also covers the responsibilities of peer fitness trainers and coordinators.

The exercise and fitness programs require that all participants be medically cleared to participate. The assessment must cover aerobic capacity, body composition, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility. The exercise and fitness program must include an educational component, individualized exercise prescription, warm-up and cool-down segments, aerobic components, muscular resistance, flexibility, healthy back, and safety/injury prevention. The explanatory information in the Annex A states that the intent is for the program to be “mandatory and nonpunitive” (A.1.2.2). NFPA 1583 references the IAFF/IAFC initiative and lists several aerobic, body composition, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility exercises and components for the agency to develop the individualized programs (A.6.4). Annex B provides additional specific exercise information, including developing strength, endurance and circuit training type programs.

Can We Learn and “Plagiarize” from the Military?

The United States Army recently revised its fitness standards, and the required testing includes three components that are relevant to their job: Push-ups, sit-ups, and running. They have also implemented wellness body fat standards. Some of their program standards are listed below from their Web page. More information can be found at www.army-fitness.com.

The Army is serious about physical fitness! As per Army Regulation 600-9, personnel are allowed the following body fat standards, although all personnel are encouraged to achieve the more stringent Department of Defense goals, which are 18 percent body fat for males and 26 percent body fat for females.


Age group 17-20: 20 percent body fat
Age group 21-27: 22 percent body fat
Age group 28-39: 24 percent body fat
Age group 40+: 26 percent body fat


Age group 17-20: 30 percent body fat
Age group 21-27: 32 percent body fat
Age group 28-39: 34 percent body fat
Age group 40+: 36 percent body fat

There are conditions that provide exceptions–and work restrictions, too–for those who don’t meet the standards. The Army has height and weight standards, which were used in the fire service in the 1970-80s and generally are not defensible in court any longer. The use of body fat and fitness testing is generally more defensible.

Using a push-up standard like the Army does could help the fire service develop agency standards, although running and sit-ups may not be directly connected. The military standards may not be the answer for the fire service, but they could certainly be a starting point. The standards are established for males and females, and in that aspect, are further ahead.

Fire Service “Fitness Tests”

A “continuous pre-employment” ability test may be the type of testing most related to the job, but most of these tests have restrictions that they are for pre-employment use only and not for incumbent and current employees. But similar testing could be developed.

Forest service agencies make use of the “Pack Test,” a work capacity evaluation used in wildland firefighting, for evaluation of fitness ability. Some of these criteria could also be applicable to your agency.


There are many excellent fitness programs available and many fire service personnel are already involved in them off duty. The IAFF/IAFC Wellness and Fitness Initiative and NFPA 1583 both provide the fire service with ample information to develop and implement mandatory wellness and fitness programs.

The fire service needs to make implementing mandatory fitness for personnel a priority. The possibility of sustaining injuries during fitness is not a reason to not implement programs; there are plenty of programs and controls to prevent most injuries if we just take the time to develop quality programs.

Wellness and Fitness Policy

Let’s consider some components of a policy. The importance of a policy is to emphasize the fitness program and ensure it occurs as scheduled. Here is some wording to begin an agency’s policy implementation.


To provide an on-duty exercise program that may help reduce physical injuries. To provide a form of exercise that promotes firefighter wellness. To establish guidelines for an exercise program for personnel to follow.


The exercise program is part of the daily training calendar and is a mandatory on-duty program for shift safety personnel.

The exercise program is a high priority for improving wellness. The wellness/fitness training and technical skills training (monthly training schedule) have equal importance. Due to the importance of this program, every effort will be made to schedule public education tours after 1000 hours. Personnel should try to restrict all non-emergency disruptions during this time, such as visitors and telephone calls. Company Officers should try to keep interruptions to a minimum.

The exercise program will be conducted during the morning hours as much as feasible.

The exercise program shall consist of a combination of cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility training. Walking is the minimum level of acceptable exercise approved by this policy.

Personnel can choose to walk, jog, or run. The use of mechanical exercise equipment and/or weights is also acceptable.

All personnel authorized to participate in the exercise program in fire department facilities will be covered by Workers Compensation should an injury occur during on-duty exercise as approved in this policy.

Thirty minutes minimum should be allotted per day for exercise.


Each Battalion Chief will monitor and ensure that the personnel under his command participate in the exercise program.

All officers are responsible to insure that those whom they supervise comply with this policy. The Supervisor shall attempt to reschedule the exercise program later in the day when necessary to coordinate other scheduling conflicts or as a result of emergency calls.

Rescheduling of fitness time should remain the exception rather than standard daily practice.



Peter BryanPETER BRYAN, a retired chief and a fire protection consultant, is a 37-year veteran of the fire and emergency services. He served as chief for the Norco, Monrovia, Rancho Cucamonga, and Wheatland (CA) Fire Departments. He is experienced in fiscal management; revenues and fees; and wellness, fitness, and workers’ compensation programs.

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