Firefighter Fitness: A Heart-Pounding Experience

The shrill, rhythmic beep of the apparatus in reverse gear seems surreal at 3 AM, as a biting wind steals your breath away. Your heart is pounding in your chest, and you're still huffing and puffing, but any physical exertion you experienced ended almost 30 minutes ago. A half an hour after the job, as your unit takes up from this small food on the stove fire, and you're still sucking wind.

As you donned your gear in quarters, all forty-five pounds of it, you weren't thinking about the affect an extra forty-five extra pounds of gear could have on your body, when called upon to go that extra mile, especially when coupled with the 20 or 30 pounds of fat you've put on over the last few years. See related article on firefighter fitness

By the time you arrive at the scene the dispatcher's report of multiple phone calls has a river of adrenalin coursing through your veins, and all your body's systems are on high alert. Senses are honed, blood pressure is elevated, and your thinking is task-oriented, clear and focused. You are ready for anything... Or are you?

Your unit arrives at the scene and you immediately notice small puffs of white smoke pushing from a casement window on the fifteenth floor of a high-rise apartment complex. Any "adrenalin affect" you thought you'd felt just multiplied ten times. No time to think, you grab your tools and race for the building lobby. Trying to remember everything you've learned about fireman service elevators, you're met by a huge sign, "ELEVATORS TEMPORARILY OUT OF SERVICE".

No questions asked, you and the rest of the forcible entry team head for the stairs. At about the third floor you realize you've been going way too fast and begin to pace yourself as best you can. By the time you reach floor number eight, you've lost sight of the rest of the crew and hit a wall of pain. Breathing is labored, your thighs ache, and you can feel AND HEAR your heart pounding throughout your entire body - but you can't stop.

You listen to the scratchy radio traffic, but can't make out who is talking or what is being said. As you attempt to stay focused and ignore the pain, you realize your body has a mind of its own. By the time you make it to floor number twelve, you wind up on your knees, gasping, crawling. You finally get a whiff of the telltale burnt metal smell reminiscent of a simple food-on-the-stove fire, and realize that the rest of your unit already on the fire floor.

No big deal, the small fire and smoke condition are immediately controlled with the opening of a few windows and a two and half gallon water extinguisher. But that's not helping you feel any better. You operated in the same way you would have if you'd been met by two full rooms of fire, and now you can't seem to recover. You think about telling your officer, asking his opinion on whether you should get checked out at the hospital or not. Pride and ego keep you quiet. After all, it was only a food-on-the-stove job, but you feel like you just operated at a third alarm.

Eventually your body does return to normal. Back at the firehouse a couple of hours later you're tired, but can once again breathe easily. But what about next time? If that small fire turned out to be a "worker", could you have operated without risking a possible incident? Who knows the answer to that question? You came close and got lucky, now it's time to do something about it.

Regular exercise can increase your ability to do work and operate on the fireground. Working out helps protect you from a cardiovascular incident (heart attack or stroke) like nothing else. You'll be, lighter, stronger and more able to handle whatever comes at you, and forestall that surge in heart rate and blood pressure. Climbing stairs, pulling ceilings, operating high-pressure hose-lines will seem a little bit easier. You'll also be able to handle stress, both mental and physical in a more constructive manner, with less negative impact on your body.

The leading cause of on duty death for firefighters, year after year, continues to be myocardial infarction or heart attack. Firefighters, young and old, need to achieve and maintain a certain level of fitness to avoid becoming a statistic. Don't wait until it's too late, embark upon a sensible diet and exercise program and improve your job performance and life expectancy.

Michael Stefano is a 20-year veteran of New York City Fire Department, currently serving in the rank of captain, as well as author of The Firefighter's Workout Book, and creator of the Firefighter's Workout video.

He has been developing exercise programs for the firefighters he's worked with and the general public for the past seventeen years. His workout routines and articles have been featured on such internet giants as America Online, Yahoo!, eDiets, and iVillage.

"To find out more about The Firefighter's Workout Book, or get more of Captain Mike's fat burning, muscle building workouts, go to: