For this month's firefighter physical fitness case study, we chose the Manchester, NH, Fire Department. Located in Hillsborough County near the state's southern border, its 258 personnel staff 10 stations and protect a population of nearly 110,000. The officer in charge of the fitness program, which has been in effect for more than two years, is District Chief Dan Goonan. The program covers all uniformed personnel involved in firefighting activities and includes mandatory physical examinations and fitness evaluations. Participation in the non-punitive fitness program is encouraged, but not mandatory.
All Manchester fire stations are equipped with Nautilus equipment and free weights, along with cardiovascular equipment such as Stairmaster steppers, stepmills and treadmills. Firefighters, who make time during their shifts to exercise, are provided with Polar Heart Rate monitors. The department acquired this equipment through the FIRE Act grant with a 30% match from the city. Through yearly physical exams, the department physician determines which firefighters are able to perform job tasks and medically cleared to participate in the International Association of Fire Chiefs/International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFC/IAFF) Wellness Fitness Initiative.
To establish baseline levels, firefighters are encouraged to give their best effort during non-competitive fitness testing. Baseline assessments are measured against yearly assessments to determine progress. Firefighters are assessed by American Council of Exercise certified Peer Fitness Counselors who recommend programs for maintenance or improvement. Manchester uses national fitness standards in relation to the IAFF/IAFC Wellness-Fitness Initiative and uses the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) for new candidates. Firefighters are reassessed every year to gauge their progress. The cost of medical evaluations is covered by the City of Manchester. Maintenance of fitness equipment is conducted on a semi-annual basis, and the department also budgets money each year for nutritional and wellness education.
The fitness equipment is cleaned and kept up daily by firefighters in each station and is the responsibility of station captains. Any major repairs and semi-annual maintenance is done by a private company. Central Station has the most equipment and space and is designed for firefighters to also exercise while off-duty. After the initial assessment, firefighters can meet with Peer Fitness Counselors for specific programs or general recommendations. Manchester offers ongoing fitness education and recertification classes.
According to Goonan, most firefighters work to improve their cardiovascular endurance and overall strength. In working with a fitness instructor, firefighters identify and train weak points. The community has shown great support and understanding since 2001, when a member of the department died of a heart attack at a structure fire. This tragedy was the impetus for the fire department's fitness program.
With quality fitness equipment, certified instructors and a physician who is an Occupational Health Specialist, Manchester firefighters have the benefit of identifying health trends based on yearly tests. Firefighters also attend an annual class that covers nutrition, smoking cessation and other health issues. As part of the comprehensive program, firefighters can also seek services for job- or life-related emotional issues.
Feedback from firefighters is positive. In conversations with Goonan, many firefighters have noted better performance of job tasks on scene with less fatigue and more confidence along with quicker recovery. Manchester has seen firefighters with heart-related problems improve their fitness levels after returning to work (and after being medically cleared).
Motivation over the course of time is always a concern with any program. For Manchester, having gym-quality equipment in all fire stations backed by the department's encouragement and allotted time to exercise helps firefighters stay in the fitness program. Yearly physicals, yearly education classes and Peer Fitness instructors are other motivating factors.
When I asked Goonan what he would do differently if starting this program over, he replied, "Identify potential problems with general program administration and implementation. The IAFF/IAFC Wellness Fitness Initiative was interpreted differently from the administration and union's perspective. More planning before implementing the program to recognize disagreements would have been helpful."
We thank District Chief Dan Goonan and the Manchester Fire Department for their efforts in keeping firefighters safe and fit. If you have feedback or questions or would like to share your department's fitness program (whether the same or different), please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
RICH MEYER is the author of FAST Responders: The ULTIMATE Guide to Firefighter Conditioning and The Firefighter's Wellness Handbook. He is a former firefighter, rescue technician and EMT-B with the Bloomfield, NJ, Volunteer Fire-Rescue Company and owns FASTBODIES Fitness and Performance. Meyer is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is certified as a Sports Performance Coach by United States of America Weightlifting (USAW). He can be reached at email@example.com. For a free training journal, visit his website at www.functionalfirefitness.com.