All professional athletic teams have fitness training built into their schedules. Team managers wouldn't think of putting their athletes on the field without fitness training. But what about our occupational athletes -- firefighters? What are we doing to ensure our firefighters are physically fit to do their jobs?
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There are not many occupations as rigorous as firefighting. Not many require hard physical labor from individuals, like climbing up ten flights of stairs while wearing an extra 60 lbs. of turn-out gear and oxygen tanks on their backs and then working, possibly in extreme heat or cold. Approximately fifty percent of firefighter fatalities are caused by heart attacks, and back problems and knee injuries are commonplace.
A well-designed firefighter fitness program can provide the following benefits:
- Reduced occurrences of heart attacks
- Increased heart and lung efficiency
- Reduced risk of major illnesses and diseases
- Reduced injuries
- Reduced weight
- Reduced cholesterol levels
- Reduced blood pressure
- Increased energy
- Reduced stress
- Increased muscle strength
- Increased productivity
Very few fire departments have a formal wellness or fitness program. In fact, for many departments, it is not even on the priority list. Fortunately, the International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs have recognized the importance of firefighter fitness and have launched and promoted the Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness/Fitness Initiative. This Initiative can be obtained through the IAFF. It is a complete physical fitness and wellness package, which includes a manual, video, and data collection protocol. Funding to establish fitness/wellness programs can be obtained through the Fire Act.
The following are some suggestions for implementing a fitness program:
- Establish a fitness committee consisting of a chief officer who is in charge of the wellness for the department, a health and fitness coordinator who coordinates the program, labor representative, and firefighter personal fitness trainer representatives from each shift. This committee will coordinate and direct the program.
- Arrange for annual medical physicals for the entire department. Ideally, the physical should contain periodic cardiovascular stress tests. The physician should provide a medical clearance form indicating that the individual can participate in fitness testing and exercise.
- Arrange for individuals to be trained and certified as personal fitness trainers. The health & fitness coordinator, a firefighter personal fitness trainer from each station and shift, and those responsible for the fitness training of recruits should be trained and certified. Only those who are personally motivated toward health and fitness should be chosen.
- Conduct annual fitness assessments of all uniformed personnel. Ensure the confidentiality of the assessments. A certified personal fitness trainer should make assessments to evaluate the aerobic capacity, flexibility, muscular strength, and muscular endurance of each firefighter. From the assessments, the trainer should provide individual exercise prescriptions to the firefighter and set non-punitive goals.
- Purchase commercial-grade fitness equipment which provides for strength training of all the major muscle groups. This can be as simple as a complete set of dumbbells and a combination bench, or as elaborate as specific weight training stations. Also provide at least one piece of cardiovascular equipment like a treadmill or a bike, or set up a walking or jogging program. This equipment should be available to all uniformed personnel. If funding is limited, good used equipment can often be obtained through donations from commercial gyms which are upgrading their fitness equipment.
- Encourage and empower firefighter certified personal fitness trainers to train their peers at the stations and to help them implement individualized programs. They can also help educate the station about fitness benefits and nutrition. Firefighter PFT's are often the key to a good wellness program.
Fitness should not be a one-time thing a firefighter does when he or she is in the fire academy. It needs to be continued throughout his or her career. The fitness of firefighters is important; the firefighter's life and those who he/she serves and works with depend on it!
Bill Pollok is the former Health & Fitness Coordinator for the Norfolk, VA, Department of Fire and Rescue. He is presently the Director of Fire Services for the World Instructor Training Schools, an organization that trains and certifies firefighters and others to become Personal Fitness Trainers. He can be reached at (757) 652-9559 or firstname.lastname@example.org, www.witseducation.com.