10 Things We Learned About Fire/Rescue Fitness Culture


Adam Scott, MS, CSCS


In August 2015 we released our Assessment of a Midsize, Urban, Midwestern Fire Department.

This report applied the Fitness Culture Assessment we developed for tactical units to a Midwestern, urban/suburban fire department. The assessment included: An online survey, 3-days of on-site observations, and personal interviews with firefighters and leadership.

We also conducted a Job Task Analysis for the Fire/Rescue Athletes (F/RAs). The Job Task Analysis included: In-person observations, historical data analysis, and informal interviews.

The full report is 67 pages.  For those of you who don’t have time to read the whole document, here are the 10 things we learned about F/R Fitness-Culture:

1. A majority of firefighters want a fitness test but might never get one.
Based on our survey, 68% of station leadership is in favor of a mandatory fitness assessment. However, when interviewed, not a single member of the department’s administrative leadership supported a mandatory fitness assessment – even one without punitive consequences.    

2. There is a disconnect between younger and older firefighters.
The most problematic disconnect we found was that only 46% of younger firefighters (those less than 45 years old) felt their peers were fit enough for duty.  In contrast, 78% of older firefighters (those over 45 years old) felt their peers were fit for duty.  This eludes to an unspoken double standard within the department – one which, if left unresolved, will continue to degrade fitness culture and morale.   

3. Department administration plays a key role, but it comes down to individual accountability.
Leadership has the critical role of establishing and supporting a strong fitness culture.  It helps greatly if leadership provides the means (time, space, equipment, fitness programming) to become fit.  However, the ultimate responsibility for job performance rests with the individual F/RA.

4. Current fitness programs are insufficient.
The current fitness requirement for the assessed department is: 30 minutes of training during a 24-hour shift.  This amounts to 60-90 minutes of unspecified “training” per week.  This is far below the American College of Sports Medicine’s (ACSM) recommendation for the general population.  The ACSM recommends at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise and 2-3 sessions per week or resistance training.  

5. Fitness actions score higher than fitness attitudes.
Our matrix analysis of F/R fitness culture reveals a major disconnect between F/RA and F/R leadership’s feelings towards fitness and their actions towards fitness.  Both positive fitness actions and positive fitness attitudes scored low in our assessment.  Most interesting was that actions out-weighted attitudes.  This was a sign of a department that was “going through the motions”, but lacked commitment.    

6. Training is not job specific or planned.
No one at the department we assessed trained for the demands of their job.  Of those who did train, 75% had no plan or program at all.  The vast majority (over 80%) of F/RAs who trained on duty, trained alone. These statistics showed a lack of appreciation for the implicit physical demands of the F/R profession.  They also reveal programs missing vital professional, team-based opportunities to promote training.

7. There is confusion between “wellness” and “fitness”.
F/R wellness is extremely important, and fitness may lead to wellness, however, when the goal outcome is job performance, fitness and wellness can often be mutually exclusive.  In terms of fire/rescue, fitness is what is required to perform job tasks safely and efficiently, where wellness is related to the individuals’ overall sense of well-being (mental and spiritual) and health. Fitness training must be focused on job performance.  Programs that highlight wellness or injury prevention often lack the volume, intensity, and duration to elicit improvements in job performance.

8. Most firefighters are fit enough for 95% of their job demands…but it is the other 5% that really matters.
Although the majority of a F/RA’s work is low in physical demands, the F/R professional must maintain a level of physical ability which allows them to perform during the times in which their job is at it’s most physically demanding and most dangerous – fire related calls.

9. The three most critical job-related physical demands for a F/RA are strength, strength endurance and repeated high-intensity work capacity-like efforts of 10-15 minutes.
Fire-related calls, although they represent the minority of emergency calls, account for the most demanding physical requirements faced be F/RA. They can be as short as 40 minutes or well over two hours.  They require a unique mix of strength, endurance, work capacity, and stamina.  F/RA can expect to carry a load of at least 60 lbs. at all times. The most common movement groups are: (1) Stationary, (2) Locomotion, (3) Balance, Rotation, Anti-Rotation, (4) Squatting and (5) Bending.  In addition to moving under load, the F/RA responding to a fire emergency is almost guaranteed to lift, carry, swing, push and pull objects of at least 30 pounds, and often times well over 75 pounds. 

10. When it comes to physical demands, the only certainty for a F/RA is uncertainty.
The truth is that no discussion of F/RA physical demands is complete without addressing this very important factor: uncertainty.  No matter how accurate our assessments and estimations are, the only certainty is that each 24-hour shift will have an uncertain and varying amount of physical demands.  A F/RA has a professional obligation to be prepared for almost anything.


If you are interested in learning more about Fitness Culture or the recommendations we made to the department – including a Department specific fitness assessment, annual training plan, and cultural changes – check out the full report: Assessment of a Midsize, Urban, Midwestern Fire Department.

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