Feedback Wanted: Step by Step Guide to Build the Fitness Culture at a First Responder Unit


By Rob Shaul

Last summer we spent some time and completed a formal, Fitness Culture and Job Task Assessment of an Urban, Midwest Fire Department.

Our assessment found the fitness culture at this unit to be poor and after returning, for several weeks we tried to find a first responder unit (LE & Fire/Rescue) with a good fitness culture to do a case study on. We couldn’t find one.

Ever since, I’ve pondered the steps required to develop a fitness culture at a first responder unit, and wondered how feasible they would be. I’ve outlined the steps below, and would appreciate your comments/feedback. Pls email

At the end of the piece I outline the differences between a First Responder Unit and Military Unit in terms of structure concerning fitness.


1) Provide Training Space/Equipment at the Firehouse/Station.
Providing space and equipment at the work place simply makes it easier logistically for first responders to train before duty, or after. As well, it can encourage first responders to begin to train together. This does not have to be a huge space, or lavishly equipped. It could begin as modestly as a hotel setup –  2 treadmills, a full set of dumbbells, two benches and a wall mounted pull up bar or dip station, mirror, and a large white board, in a small room.

2) Start putting up suggested daily training sessions on the White Board.
This will require someone to begin to think about programming, but it can be simple at first. Goal is to give athletes a optional program to follow, as well as begin to build a culture where everyone trains the same, every day – no special snowflakes. A clever programmer will start posting 1RM, workout finish times, etc., to build competition/camaraderie.

3) Set aside 60 minutes of duty time to train
This is a huge step, as it is an administrative cost – but nothing will demonstrate a leadership’s commitment to the importance of physical fitness like essentially paying athletes to train. Don’t require training, yet, but for athletes who want to train, allow them to do it on duty. Those who don’t want to train don’t get an hour off….

4) Develop a Unit-Specific, Task-Specific Fitness Assessment
This will require professional consultation, only if the assessment comes with jeopardy. At this point the assessment won’t have jeopard, assessment can be designed internally. (MTI is currently developing a template/procedure/flow chart a first responder unit can use to do this itself.) Publicize the process and solicit input. Don’t design an assessment which needs unique equipment not available in the unit’s fitness training rooms.

5) Design a 6-Week, Unit AssessmentTraining Plan
Instead of just unleashing the Unit Assessment, design a 6-week training plan to specifically prepare athletes for the assessment.

6) Announce An Assessment Date for Volunteers
Still voluntary, but announce the assessment date, and provide the training plan for those who plan to take the assessment. Post the training plan sessions daily in the unit fitness training spaces and encourage/celebrate the volunteers training for the assessment.

7) Conduct the Assessment and Publish Results by Name
Celebrate/reward those who took the assessment and those who scored well. “Churn” the assessment if needed to make it more practical/task specific.

8) Schedule the Next Assessment and Make it Mandatory
Plan to make the Assessment semi-annual, so schedule it 6 months away. Announce it well ahead of time. Inform unit members the assessment will not have job or duty deputy, but results will be published internally.

9) Identify Unit Fitness Leaders and Find them Instruction
Focus should be preparing unit fitness leaders to help/lead training sessions for the 6-Week Assessment-Specific Training Plan

10) 6 Weeks Out from the Required Assessment, Start the Training Plan
Still voluntary, but heavily encourage all members complete the Assessment-Specific 6 Week training plan sessions directly before the assessment. Encourage them to train together, on duty, in the station/firehouse completing the assessment-plan sessions. This way, many in the unit will be completing the same training, daily. No special snowflakes.

11) Hold the Assessment, Publish Results Internally
Use the power of individual professionalism to self-motivate members who don’t assess well.

12) Announce the Assessment will be Mandatory, and Semi-Annual
Note training on duty will be allowed and encouraged, especially the 6 weeks prior to the assessment following the assessment specific training plan. Continue to compile assessment data and publish results internally.

13) After 2-3 Assessments, Announce the Assessment will now have Job Performance and Duty Station Jeopardy
Still publish results internally. Change now means athletes who don’t assess well we be penalized on their individual job performance evaluation, and could possibly be removed from front line duty. Don’t make on-duty training mandatory, but highly encourage it as well as encourage unit members to train together, and unit-wide programming so all are completing the same training, every day – no special snowflakes.

14) Continue to improve/enhance station/firehouse training areas and equipment. Hopefully the facilities are overcrowded before/after duty shifts with members training, and this will demonstrate the need for more investment. Keep it simple, focused, and mission-direct.

15) Hire a half-time strength and conditioning coordinator.
Ideal candidate would be a full time unit member who would change his/her job profile to .5 time first responder duties, and .5 time strength and conditioning coordinator. Main job would be to provide day to day programming for unit members.

16. Hire a Full Time Strength and Conditioning Coordinator
This would demonstrate full commitment to the program.


What about wellness counseling – i.e. diet, tobacco use, etc.?
I feel concerns about wellness is wasted energy and focus. It’s simply difficult to change adults’ bad habits. Focus on fitness and outside performance and trust that better wellness will follow. As well, often wellness programs seem to coddle first responders who have let themselves go, but still want front line jobs. Keep the focus on the ability to physically do the job.

Why not implement a High Jeopardy Fitness Assessment?
Legal jeopardy. Lawsuits will inevitably occur, and the danger isn’t losing the lawsuit and having to change the assessment, but losing the lawsuit and having to totally abandon the drive to build a fitness culture. High Jeopardy = you could lose your job because of poor fitness. Unit members with poor fitness can still be taken out of front-line positions and limited to admin work. Many will self-cull, and the issue will solve itself.


1) Paid Time to Train. Military PT is early in the morning, every day. The vast majority of First Responders must train on their own. They are not allocated time to train on duty.

Some First Responder Units have arrangements set up through local commercial gyms where they pay dues for unit members, but the members have to train on their own time.

2) Equipment. Military bases have we’ll outfitted gyms, and many individual military units have their own unit training facilities. It’s rare to find a LE unit with any type of training facility or equipment. Some full time fire departments have small training areas in their stations, but outfitting is spotty and not consistent between stations.

3) Unit Trains Together. This is a significant, and often overlooked difference. Tight military units train together, first thing in the morning, usually. This has the effect of building camaraderie, driving accountability, and easing the “burden of constant fitness.” First Responder personnel, for the most part, if they do train, train alone.

4) High Jeopardy Fitness Assessment. Military units have to pass a fitness assessment semi annually or face possible termination. To be promoted, many units require superior PFT scores. Few First Responder units have a required assessment at all, and fewer still have a high jeopardy assessment.

5) Older “legacy” members resistant to job-based fitness training. First Responder Units are distinct from military units in that members in their 50s and 60s can still hold front line, operational positions. A higher percentage of legacy members resist physical training and any type of fitness assessment for two general reasons. First, many legacy members have enjoyed long, successful careers without undertaking any job-specific training at all, so why now? Second is age and the natural physical decline which comes with getting older. Some legacy members in their 40’s – 60’s fear fitness training and assessments because age and lifestyle has brought on declining fitness, and they don’t want to be compared to younger members. Many feel experience and tactical proficiency can make up for poor fitness. However, these attitudes often differ with younger members, and creates a disconnect which presents a challenge to developing a unified fitness culture.

6) Anti-training bias. The quote, “I have been doing this job for years, and I’ve never needed to train. So why now?” would typify an anti-training bias. Day to day operations in a fire station and police patrol are low intensity work. The need for tactical fitness may only present itself 5% or less of the time on the job.

6) Public union resistance. Many First Responder Units are represented by public unions which historically have been resistant to mandated physical training and high jeopardy fitness assessments.

7) Administrative cost and effort. Providing time to train on-duty, coaching, training programs and equipment, and tracking will accrue administrative costs and focused effort. These costs are built in for military units but must be budgeted for first responder units.

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