What’s the Difference Between “Training” and “Working Out”?


In the fire service, we preach about the importance of training and how it can greatly improve our effectiveness during an emergency incident. We also emphasize the need to be physically fit to perform the duties and tasks that may be required of us when the tones drop. The question is, although we demand both training and fitness, are they being accomplished? Training on forcible entry and ladder placement is great, but if our firefighters cannot physically carry a ladder or force a door, our crew’s abilities are only book knowledge deep. The same can be said if our members have biceps of steel, can lift ungodly amounts of weight, and run for miles without getting tired but are unable to accurately read flow paths or perform a simple search pattern.

We need to combine both very important activities to accomplish the ultimate goal of providing the best level of service to the communities that we serve. The strongest, most powerful tool in our arsenal is our brain. We must prepare not only physically but mentally for the challenges we face.

Tandem Training

I’ve seen crews boast that they “train together to survive together.” This sounds great until you consider the level of training. Does the training consist of situations that could potentially save your or your fellow firefighter’s life if you or he became trapped or injured? Does it cover modern building construction, how it affects fire behavior, or how it could affect the potential need to get out of a building and do so in a hurry?

Several firefighter survival classes teach firefighters how to keep calm in stressful situations and use their equipment; experiences; and, most importantly, training to go home safely at the end of the day. These classes consist of topics such as air conservation, calling a Mayday, and firefighter egress, to name a few. Hopefully, you will never need to use this knowledge, but with it, you and your crew are better equipped on every call.

A firefighter trains on vertical ventilation using an ax on a roof prop built to construction specs. We train with hand tools because a hand tool will always “start,” you can sound with the same tool, and you can truly understand what you’re supposed to feel when you hit a stud vs. “good” wood. (Photos courtesy of Ezekiel Webb.)

(1) A firefighter trains on vertical ventilation using an ax on a roof prop built to construction specs. We train with hand tools because a hand tool will always “start,” you can sound with the same tool, and you can truly understand what you’re supposed to feel when you hit a stud vs. “good” wood. (Photos courtesy of Ezekiel Webb.)

We need to step back and look at what we call “training.” Take an honest look and see if what you are doing is genuine training. Are you training on drags and carries, or are you simply dragging around a dummy with a drag rescue device (DRD) to help improve endurance? We may tell ourselves that we are training, but are we preparing ourselves for a potential rescue? What if the victim doesn’t have a DRD, is overweight, or has limited amounts of clothing?

Hitting a tire with a sledgehammer is a great way to train on vertical ventilation, but does a rubber tire present us with the same problems that a roof does? If you train on nothing but a tire, would you be able to know when you are on and off a stud? Or, if you are used to the recoil of a rubber tire, could you recognize a “spongy” roof before it was too late?

The same can be said for the reverse scenario. You can know everything about different drag-and-carry techniques to fit various situations. You can be an expert on all the steps and procedures to rescue a victim from a bed, kitchen floor, or classic bathroom, but if you aren’t physically able to perform the rescue, then you are just as useless. If you know where, when, and how to perform a vertical ventilation cut but you don’t have the physical strength to do the cutting, then you are still ineffective.

We must recognize the importance of training and working out, but we must not confuse one with the other. Training can strengthen the mind and body; so can working out, but in a completely different way. Physical training will push the body while allowing members to experience real-world scenarios. Facing obstacles that could potentially present themselves during an incident will allow a firefighter to learn from that experience while still breaking a sweat.

A firefighter trains on forcible entry.

(2) A firefighter trains on forcible entry.

Is It for Us or Them?

We cannot put ourselves above those who depend on us in their time of need. We can no longer afford to lie to the community and ourselves by saying that we train every day when that training consists only of pulling a sled across the bay floor or maxing out our new squat limit. Regardless of what we may call it, if our training consists only of activities meant to better our appearance and personal stats, we are ultimately doing nothing more than chasing our selfish goals.

The calls we face today are not the calls that firefighters who came before us faced. With the constant changes in building construction, vehicle design, and prehospital care and the growing threat of potential firearm-related incidents, we cannot rest on a complacent “I already know this stuff” mentality.

With all these changes, physical training is even more important; this includes training that uses common situations to firm up our basic foundation of knowledge as well as prepares us for those high-risk, low-frequency calls to which we don’t respond on a regular basis. Inarguably, this job is extremely physically demanding. It requires us to have not only strength but also stamina and endurance. Being in top physical shape helps us perform our duties more proficiently, and it also leads to better long-term health. A healthy combination of both can ensure that we will always be ready for whatever may lie in store when we arrive on scene. Gaining knowledge through practical training as well as better fitness through traditional exercise will provide us with the level of service the general public expects.

Strong Backs and Minds

It has often been said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. It can also be said that a crew is only as strong as its weakest member. It’s time we focus not only on physical strength but also on creating more knowledgeable and intelligently aggressive firefighters with sound tactics.

The days of a fire service that requires only “strong backs and weak minds” are over. Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t we have strong backs and strong minds? We can use battling rope as well as ropes and knots as well as the tire and sledge and vertical ventilation techniques. It is paramount to blend our workouts with scenarios we could see and measure. Change needs to start with us, and it needs to start now.

MATT PAGE is the assistant chief of the Alpine Fire Department in Tioga, Louisiana, where he has worked for more than 10 years. He is also a captain with more than nine years of service at Lincoln Parish (LA) Fire Protection District. Page has bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and professional aviation.

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