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The Grind: Firefighter Fitness

As firefighters, line officers, and command staff, when you think about physical fitness are the first pictures that come to mind fighting structure fires, high-level rescues, vehicle extrications, and other common high-demand, life-saving responses? The types of responses, or maybe better stated; the reasons why you became a firefighter, and the reasons you stay. Or, do you think about the time in between the high-demand responses? Such as morning apparatus maintenance, operational checks, station upkeep, on-shift training, and other daily duties or the grind.

When you look at high-demand responses, the physical demands and fitness levels needed are easily apparent. Whereas the physical fitness requirements for the grind may not be as apparent or appear as physically demanding as high-demand responses, indeed they often are. The physical fitness requirements are identical and consist of four components.

The Four Components of Fitness1 Muscular Strength: An individual's ability to exert force on a physical object utilizing their muscles. Cardiovascular Endurance: An individual's ability to effectively move oxygen rich blood to the muscles. Flexibility: An individual's ability to utilize a joint's full range of motion. Nutrition: An individual's intake of nutrients, consisting of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, to fuel and/or refuel the body.

The Link Between A Firefighter's Fitness Level And Performance Of Daily Duties

The link between firefighters fitness levels which can range from non-fit, to fit, to highly fit directly impacts their ability to effectively and efficiently perform during high-demand, life-saving responses. The same relationship to daily duties may not appear as clear. Typical daily duties of a firefighter require various levels of physical exertion, from nominal exertion to some which may require exertion levels similar to that of high-demand responses. For example, sitting in a classroom going over deployment and response plans for an upcoming marathon would require nominal physical exertion.

Whereas apparatus maintenance which is a daily occurrence and may not initially appear to be physically demanding, indeed is. For example, checking of their self contained breathing apparatus requires nominal physical exertion. The physical exertion level increases as the firefighters move to washing the engine where muscular strength, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility begin to come into play. These requirements further increase as the firefighters remove equipment from the engine for operational checks and replacement.

The significance of a high level of physical fitness begins to become evident as the rescue company heads to three hours of vehicle extrication training in 80 degree F weather. The requirements of muscular strength increase as the firefighters begin to utilize the extrication tools, remove a roof, and extricate a patient onto a long backboard. It also requires cardiovascular endurance for short, intense bursts of exertion such as carrying the tools and extricating the patients while in protective equipment that impairs the ability to evaporate sweat. It also is required for the firefighter to effectively cool while performing high-demand tasks in a high-heat environment2. Though it may not appear that flexibility would be a key component during training, it plays a key role in the firefighter's ability to utilize muscular strength in multiple planes effectively and efficiently.

Nutrition is the last and often the most overlooked component of fitness. Firefighters need to sufficiently fuel and refuel for their shift due to the unknown physical demands, high-intensity, and often unknown duration of a response. Calorie intake which is based on five variables which include weight, gender, height, age, and exercise level3 is crucial for meeting the body's energy requirements. Firefighters must consider adjusting their caloric intake based on the demands of the shift by focusing on 65 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent protein, and 15 percent fat3 to function at and maintain peak performance. Though these percentages can be altered based on individual needs, goals, and shift demands.


A high level of fitness and readiness is not just required for the high-demand responses of a shift, but for the shift itself. For a moment, imagine the same rescue company from above has just finished its three-hour vehicle extrication training in a high-heat environment and now is required for a high-demand, life-saving response.

A special thanks to B.J. Jungmann, Assistant Fire Chief/EMS, Maplewood, MN, Fire Department, Maplewood, for reviewing the article for correct fire service terminology.


1The Exercise and Physical Fitness Page

2National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety, Working in Hot Environments

3International Association of Firefighters, Fitness on the Front Line: Staying Prepared

SCOTT TOMEK MA, EMT-P has been a paramedic for 25 years with 23 of those at Lakeview Hospital EMS in Stillwater, MN. He is a faculty member with the Century College Paramedic Program and wrote the curriculum for and served as the interim director of their public safety degree program. He is a frequent contributor to EMS Magazine, a frequent presenter at EMS conferences in the Midwest and an educational consultant to fire and EMS services. He can be reached at scott.tomek@century.eduNICOLE OLSON is an undergraduate student at Mankato State University where she is majoring in health science with a minor in psychology. Her areas of interest are childhood obesity, nutrition, and endurance sports. She is an accomplished sub-four hour marathoner. She can be reached at