Firefighter Fitness: I have not created this problem, but I’m not fixing it either


By Jason Ford
Captain, Houston Fire Department


“You Coach it or You Allow it to Happen” – Herm Edwards

I’ve liked this quote ever since I first heard Coach Edwards say it. It makes perfect sense that as the leader of my crew I would communicate my expectations followed by showing what I want to be done, and how (coaching). When my guys do the right thing without me pointing the way it would just be stupid for me to intervene (allowing it to happen).

Then for the next few years, I’d say it because it sounded good without always doing it. Probably at my best I have applied it half of my time as a Captain. My job is to make certain my crew is operationally ready for each shift, every call. The taxpayer expects this from me, 100 percent of the time. Being real with myself, I am only half of what the people who pay my salary expect for their money. Winning 50 percent of the time will probably get you into the NBA playoffs but for me, it means I’ve got work to do.

Throughout my adult life, I have always been fit. I’m a professional firefighter. If I were not fit, I would be derelict in my duty. Physical fitness is an expression of leadership. It can be visually noticeable and physically quantifiable to all observers. It seems that physical fitness is easily discounted in the qualities of a good leader. Your physical fitness communicates that you are capable and competent. It’s not a foolproof measure by any means but tends to be quite accurate. I’m not saying you need to be the most muscular, strongest, fit person on your crew. But I am saying you must be muscular, strong, and fit. If your crew sees that you don’t place a premium on physical fitness how can you expect them to be physically fit? Lead by example or model the behavior you expect. To have a crew that possesses a strong physical capacity, the officer must show them that this is what is expected. You can and must communicate this expectation verbally, however for it to stick you must show the way. It is not what we preach, it is what we tolerate that determines what gets done and doesn’t.

That’s how I see things. I’m not wrong.

But I’m a hypocrite. I may talk and set an example for other firefighters about the benefits of being physically fit, good eating habits, looking the part…but I’m a hypocrite. I’m a hypocrite because I tolerate undisciplined, out of shape firefighters. I allow it to happen. I put guys on the truck every day that aren’t physically prepared to do this job at the level it should be done. I have not created this problem, but I’m not fixing it either.

Firefighting is a dangerous, strenuous profession. We have got to prepare physically to handle the rigors and thrive. Once you put your gear on for a fire call your physical capabilities are cut by 25 percent and your energy expenditure increases by 50 percent. The job entails interrupted sleep cycles, missed meals, emotional, mental, physical stress, and the list goes on. We as a fire service are doing a much better job of putting our guys in safer positions with improved tactics and thus lowering traumatic firefighter fatalities. However, over the last ten years, more than half of all firefighter fatalities are from heart attacks or stroke. A fire scene is dynamic and we can’t control for every hazard but we can all control what’s on our plate and our physical fitness. This job can kill you even when you do everything right.

I don’t have a physical training requirement at my station. If I did I couldn’t enforce it anyway. In my crew, I have 5 guys and myself who put the work in each shift so others can see that it can be done. We invite the whole crew to join in, we encourage the whole crew to join in. No dice. It is frustrating to know that the piece of equipment that gets the most use in the firehouse gym is the TV. Many firefighters eat like a toddler without parental supervision. Cake and ice cream every shift.

I’m allowing this to happen. Why? It’s just easier to avoid that conversation. No hurt feelings and no dealing with HR. It’s unconscionable and cowardly on my part. It is a failure of leadership and lack of discipline to be laid at no one’s feet but my own.

I coach it then allow it to happen.



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