Physical Fitness in the Fire Service

BY GUIDO CALCAGNO

Today’s firefighter needs to better understand the correlation between physical fitness and improved job performance. Firefighting is a career that requires you to be at the peak of your game at all times. Going from a sound sleep to your peak heart rate within three minutes can put physical and emotional stress on anybody.

Improving your overall strength through physical fitness allows you to perform fireground tasks without putting yourself or others at risk for injury. Mental and physical strength enable a firefighter to stay focused on a given task and have the muscular endurance to complete it.

Through a regimented training program, you can train your body to face many different challenges. With proper cardiovascular and strength training, you will have the muscular and respiratory endurance to operate in a variety of scenarios and situations in which a less fit member may not.

Although a firefighter may be physically strong, there are many other aspects that go into the making of a well-rounded and healthy responder. The ability to perform required tasks during a given shift can make the difference between life and death if the firefighter is physically unfit and unable to perform the job. Your health and well-being affect not only you as an individual firefighter but also your company and the public. Being the one to render help is far different from being the one to whom help must be rendered.

The fire service is beginning to realize that a higher number of injuries and deaths results from preventable causes. The lack of physical activity associated with the growing number of obese people is alarming. Strength training and endurance training are necessities in the fire service if you want to maintain your health and longevity on the job.

STRENGTH TRAINING

Firefighting is a very dangerous but rewarding job. We risk a lot to save a lot, and sometimes this results in injuries. Regardless of the physical shape in which a firefighter may be at the time, not all injuries can be avoided. But, just as an athlete trains to prepare for a game, a firefighter can also work on avoiding some of these injuries by being as ready as possible to go to work at any given moment.

Athletes exercise for years to prepare for games and events. Through exercise, athletes can train their bodies to work harder on the field, run faster in the race, and avoid certain types of injuries. The professional athlete focuses on being the best player on the field, the court, or the ice for every play. However, physical fitness and exercise should not be limited only to the field. We need to bring it into the firehouse as well, for the same reasons.

Firefighters require nearly the same amount of energy as champion athletes do just to do their job.1 The physical labor required amid intense conditions demands that the firefighter be at the top of his game all the time. As in football, if your head is not up, you get hit hard. Firefighting is similar. Missing some small details will hit you just as hard, if not harder, and may even get you burned.

The lack of physical fitness problem begins in the firehouse, where firefighters may spend several sedentary hours watching television, sleeping, or even sitting around playing on the computer. Although seemingly harmless, this inactivity may be just as dangerous as fighting a fire. In a 2002 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that lack of fitness is a better predictor of death among men than all other established heart disease risk factors, but unlike age, race, and genetics, you can modify this easily with exercise.2 Unfortunately, this may be easier said than done because firefighters are human, too. They may have families and other obligations, but unlike many other professions, a firefighter may have the ability to exercise at work, but only if his fire department provides him with the facilities and machines. As mentioned earlier, your lack of physical fitness is a matter of public safety, not just your individual health. If a firefighter goes down in a fire because he is not physically fit or because of a preexisting condition resulting from poor health, the rescuer is now a victim, whose rescue will require important resources.

For a firefighter to give more than the average citizen, he must be physically strong enough to perform such tasks as rescuing victims, moving equipment, and advancing hoseline much more easily. Muscular strength is defined as the maximum force that a muscle or muscle group can exert.3 Firefighting tasks require strength and are much more demanding and straining than those of the average office worker. Since muscular strength is also at the core of physical skill and performance, the firefighter will be able to better handle himself throughout a fire’s duration as he takes on heavy workloads if he incorporates strength training into his regular workout routine.4

The many benefits of strength training are applicable to the fire service. For example, muscular-strengthening exercises are likely to improve your stamina and your energy, not to mention your resistance to injury. (4) This is important because the physical workload that a fire response places on a firefighter does not require just one muscle group. Firefighting necessitates various physical requirements in adverse conditions. Although you cannot be trained for these situations specifically, maintaining your body in a state of physical readiness will help tremendously. Studies have shown that people with strong muscles are less likely to suffer everyday muscle aches and pains and will have less strain on their hearts. (4) Strength training provides the firefighter with a strong, well-balanced foundation.

Flexibility, or the ability of a joint to move through its full range of motion, is an important component of firefighter physical fitness.5 It’s important to firefighters because their job duties can require them to operate in conditions that are not always ideal-slippery surfaces, confined spaces, heavy workloads, and increased strenuous activity. Firefighters must be ready to work at a moment’s notice amid many adverse conditions. Flexibility not only helps decrease the risk of injury but also can contribute to increased physical efficiency and performance,6 increased circulation (6), reduced muscle tension and soreness (5), improved balance and posture (3, 5), reduced stress and tension (5), the prevention of lower back pain and joint/muscle injury,7 and the reduction of the risk of injury. (5)

Since physical fitness does not rely on just one form of exercise, you should incorporate a variety of exercises in your routine. By incorporating a mix of strength training, stretching/flexibility, and aerobic training in your routine, you will enjoy an increased resting metabolism (3), strengthened bones (3), enhanced lean muscle mass (7), reduced high blood pressure (7), favorable changes in high-density lipid level (good cholesterol) (7), and reduced risk of osteoporosis (7).

The benefits of muscular fitness should be obvious, especially for firefighters. Carrying heavy equipment to the scene or up many flights of stairs while wearing more than 60 pounds of equipment and then performing at full capacity puts extreme demands of strength and endurance on the human body. Firefighting and rescue work frequently involve moving your body into different positions. Because of this, it is imperative that a firefighter’s muscles be strong in every position when they are used.

Muscular fitness encompasses three properties of muscle tissue: strength, power, and endurance. Strength is the ability of a muscle or muscle group to exert force to overcome the most resistance in one effort.8 Power is defined as the amount of work performed per unit of time and is an element of skill-related fitness needed to excel in athletic performance or, in this case, firefighting. (8) Endurance is the ability of a muscle or muscle group to exert force to overcome a resistance many times and is usually measured by the amount of repetitions performed. (8)

Since firefighting has high demands of strenuous work, a high degree of muscular fitness is strongly encouraged. By incorporating strength training, you will be able to generate new muscle tissue, which will then be available to contract and generate force to allow you to perform the task at hand more safely and efficiently.9 Although a firefighter can be exceptionally strong, he may lack substantial power because he is unable to contract muscle quickly. (9) This is why it is important to implement strength training into your fitness program.

For a fitness program to be effective, you must follow a schedule that should allow for periodization. (9) Periodization comes from sport-specific strength training, in which overall training plans are divided into distinct phases or periods, each of which has a specific outcome, which allows each specific strength to peak at the right times. (9) This minimizes the risk of overtraining. (9) The concept of periodization allows you to build more specific elements of strength on a solid foundation.

By implementing a strength training routine in combination with other various aspects of physical fitness such as cardiovascular health, healthy diet, and endurance training, you will benefit physically and mentally. Physically, you will perform better at emergency incidents and more easily move equipment, force entry, advance hoselines, use vehicle extrication equipment, move and place ladders, perform victim rescue, and perform roof operations. Mentally, with a more toned and muscular appearance, you will feel more confident. In addition, practicing in a well-structured physical fitness regimen helps in relieving stress.

ENDURANCE TRAINING

Firefighting jobs require performing arduous tasks for long periods in a variety of conditions. A firefighter has to be smart and strong to get the job done and must be able to continuously perform work at a moderate to quick pace without stopping to rest for extended periods of time. Using proper technique and training, you will be able to endure the physical stresses of firefighting for longer periods.

Firefighting requires performing intense physical labor in less-than-ideal conditions, and you may have to adapt for an extended time to changing conditions such as high heat levels, confined spaces, and oxygen-deficient atmospheres. In each atmosphere, you must conserve your air to ensure safety and allow yourself enough time to safely enter the environment, perform the task, and exit. This is why cardiovascular and aerobic health are extremely important and practical for a firefighter to perform effectively.

Endurance training is one of the most important elements in firefighter health and fitness and is synonymous with cardiovascular and aerobic training. Muscular endurance is the ability of muscles to endure over a length of time when they are in active use.10 Some of the benefits of endurance training include promoting cardiovascular health,11 strengthening joints (11), increasing mental awareness (11), boosting respiratory system efficiency (11), limiting fatigue (11), increasing metabolism (11), and increasing stamina. (10)

Endurance exercises improve the lungs’ ability to provide oxygen and the heart vessels’ ability to supply blood to the tissue.12 Endurance exercise also helps to improve blood circulation and keep cardiovascular diseases at bay. (11) The heart’s pumping efficiency improves considerably with endurance training, making the heart function more efficiently to maintain better overall health. (11) As a result of cardiovascular exercise, the heart will have a greater pumping capacity, enabling a firefighter to more easily control blood pressure and cholesterol, decrease his resting heart rate, and increase cardiac output. With improved heart function, the firefighter also benefits by a decrease in the muscles’ demand for oxygen, allowing for quicker recovery.

Endurance training also helps to strengthen joints by improving their flexibility and stability. (11) It increases the strength of the muscles and ligaments that control the joint, increasing that joint’s ability to withstand injuries. (11) Muscles with endurance are not as prone to muscle strains and tears. (10) Muscles with endurance are used to the actions they perform; instead of being unduly strained, they can respond properly to the demands put on them. This is a benefit to the firefighter when working on ice, on uneven ground, or when carrying awkward loads.

Knowing that you are physically prepared for your job can make being mentally prepared a no-brainer. Mental awareness is one of the most important things a firefighter can have on the emergency scene. Poor concentration is evidence of a sluggish mind. (11) Endurance training helps to improve mental alertness by keeping the firefighter focused on the task at hand and enables him to endure through tough situations. (11) Mental alertness helps promote better situational awareness, whether it involves emergency medical service incident scene safety or knowing where an exit might be in a smoke-filled hallway. Hence, it can be the difference between life and death.

Besides increasing alertness, endurance training can also help to improve respiratory system efficiency by supplying oxygen to different working muscles of the body. (11) Firefighters often have to perform many tasks that require using aerobic capacity day in and day out in all types of situations, whether fire suppression, technical rescue, or hazmats. These incidents can last from only a few minutes to several hours or even several days. By regularly using large muscle groups in exercise, you will note a more effective respiratory fitness level. Running, cycling, climbing stairs, jumping rope, and swimming are just a few such activities that promote this. Including these exercises in a fitness program will enable a firefighter to perform his duties better at any emergency incident.

WEIGHT

Keeping the firefighter’s weight at a normal and healthy level is another very important factor in fighting fatigue and improving overall health. Endurance training increases the body’s metabolic rate, which in turn helps to decrease excess fat. (11) Because muscle burns calories more efficiently and more quickly than fat does, those with muscular endurance have healthier weight levels than those not participating in a physical fitness program. (10) The increased metabolism enables the body to store more calories for energy to prepare the body for the workloads firefighting entails.

Muscles that have built up their endurance can be repeatedly put through the same actions, which will allow a firefighter to extend and intensify every situation he encounters. (10) With all the well-known benefits of an endurance routine, combined with healthy eating and strength training, every firefighter fine-tunes his firefighting abilities to enhance the skill and fitness levels required to perform the job safely and effectively. By performing every duty thoroughly, effectively, and safely, a firefighter can increase the maximum amount of work he can perform while decreasing the energy and time required to perform it.

•••

Each firefighter needs to take an active role in managing his health. Incorporating a healthy eating plan along with a regular exercise regimen into his schedule enables a member to focus more on the tasks at hand when performing the job.

Firefighters desire to help someone else in a time of need and go out of their way in the attempt to save a life, whether it’s pulling someone from a burning building or performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation. However, firefighters must see the overall picture more clearly so they can achieve a level of peak performance that will enable them to do their job more efficiently. By incorporating all aspects of fitness, strength training, and muscular endurance into a regular routine, firefighters can start to make the strides that create a safer workplace for themselves, their coworkers, and the public.

Endnotes

1. Onion, Amanda. (2012, September). “Firefighters work like elite athletes.” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97914&page=1.

2. Hagen, B. (2010, May). “Lack of physical fitness and nutrition.”Livestrong.com, www.livestrong.com/article/128397-lack-physical-fitness-nutrition.

3. Balbach, L. (2009, November). “Body building for muscular strength, tone and endurance.” Health and Fitness Page, http://k2.kirtland.cc.mi.us/~balbachl/weight.htm.

4. “Weight training: Improve your muscle strength and endurance.” (2009). RxRemedy, Inc., Sentry Health Monitors, http://www.lifeclinic.com/focus/nutrition/weighttraining.asp.

5. Waehner, P. (2012, February). “Flexibility.” About.com, http://exercise.about.com/od/flexibilityworkouts/g/flexibility.htm.

6. Graves, L. (2009, February). “Benefits of flexibility exercises,” Say It Aloud.com, http://sayitaloud.com/index.php/health-fitness-exercise/985-benefits-of-flexibility-exercises.html.

7. Flohr, J. (2005, April 22). “Concepts of fitness: muscular strength and endurance.” Slide presentation, http://girls-strength-and-conditioning.pvhs.sd27j.org/modules/locker/files/get_group_file.phtml?gid=1805970&fid=4967164.

8. Voza, L. (2012, April). “Define strength, power, and muscular endurance.” Livestrong.com, http://www.livestrong.com/article/115549-define-strength-power-muscular-endurance.

9. “Elements of a strength training program.” (2010). Sports Fitness Advisor, http://www.sport-fitness-advisor.com/strengthtraining.html.

10. Carswell, M. (2005, July). “The benefits of muscular endurance.” Essortment.com, http://www.essortment.com/benefits-muscular-endurance-100721.html.

11. Nicks, J. (2010, January 21). “Endurance training benefits.”Buzzle.com, http://www.buzzle.com/articles/endurance-training-benefits.html.

12. Ross, M. (2011, May). Livestrong.com, “How can exercise improve your endurance?”Livestrong.com, http://www.livestrong.com/article/405791-how-can-exercise-improve-your-endurance/.

GUIDO CALCAGNO is a firefighter/paramedic with the Chicago (IL) Fire Department, where he has served for the past eight of his nine years in the fire service. He has an associate degree in emergency medical services management from the College of DuPage and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in fire service administration through Lewis University.

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