First Responders: Why do you tolerate unfit police and firefighters?

Unfit First Responders = Unacceptable Safety Risk.
Unfit First Responders = Unacceptable Safety Risk.

By Rob Shaul


In April 2016 I taught a pilot Unit Fitness Leader courses to law enforcement and fire rescue athletes in Salt Lake and Denver.

Our approach to the role and responsibilities of a first responder Unit Fitness Leader is significantly different than the current, soft and supporting “Peer Fitness Leader” role which exists at first responder departments.

Out of the gate, I asked my students directly why they tolerated unfit, often obese, police and firefighters at their departments.

Many excuses came back including poor examples at the command level (i.e. unfit, “legacy” police and fire chiefs), union resistance, not wanting to create a “hostile” work environment for members, and “career suicide.”

All these excuses are lame. Here’s why.


1) An unfit first responder can get you killed.

Two firefighters were killed, and two severely injured, in a structure fire within the past couple years.

Media and official case reports of the incident describe a situation where one firefighter (Firefighter A) became lost in the structure, got low on air, and radioed for help. He succumbed to the fire.

The three other firefighters (B, C, D) were injured or killed trying to move him to safety. Firefighter B died from smoke inhalation. Firefighters C and D were both severely burned.

What the official reports left out was that Firefighter A weighed over 300 pounds, and by any measure, was severely de-conditioned. Prior to the incident, others in the department would joke about Firefighter A. Very funny, ha, ha, ha.

The department didn’t have a required fitness assessment, training requirement, or any preference towards fitness. The department did have an annual health screening where blood would be drawn, EKG performed, etc., but it lacked a serious fitness element.

Is it not obvious that an obese, de-conditioned individual would be more susceptible to early air loss, and quicker disorientation in the high-stress environment of a structure fire? As well, once down, moving someone over 300 pounds in body weight, plus 60-90# of gear/kit is much more difficult, and dangerous than egressing a fit, lighter individual.

Though not officially acknowledging fitness was the issue, post-incident, the department, in this case, made fitness a priority – to the point of reaching out for university help.

Firefighter A’s severe de-conditioning likely caused him to succumb to the fire. Firefighter B died and firefighters C and D were severely injured trying to rescue him.

Be clear. An unfit colleague can get you killed.
As well, it’s entirely possible to be severely de-conditioned and not be obese. 


2) Unfit first responders poison unit cohesion and morale.

Fit department members resent greatly unfit members. We witnessed a case where an unfit firefighter was regulated to “water boy” status during a structural fire while the other members on the truck did their job and his. They resented him greatly as he was making the same money and had the same status as a “full-time firefighter” as they – but obviously couldn’t do the job.

All of the students at my courses this week were young and fit. All resented the unfit members in their department and the unfit “legacy” members in command positions protecting them.

So what happens practically?

At big departments, fit, top performers look for trucks, shifts, stations, and jobs with other high-speed first responders. All the top guys end up at the busiest fire stations, SWAT teams, etc. The unfit, de-conditioned members are pushed to the slow duty stations and easy jobs where they end up surrounded by other unfit, unmotivated members, creating a clear discrepancy and divide in the department.

At small departments, fit, young, top performers leave for departments which share their professionalism. Small departments with poor fitness and professional cultures end up as training grounds for other departments which take fitness and professionalism seriously.


3) Chances are, de-conditioned first responders are also unfit in other areas of their job performance.

We strongly believe first responders are professional athletes.

Poor fitness reflects poorly on other areas of a first responder’ professionalism.

If his body is a firefighter’s most important piece of equipment, and he is unfit, is it wrong to assume his personal equipment, fire theory, and firefighting tactical knowledge is also in question?

Is it safe to assume that if a de-conditioned cop isn’t professional enough to be fit for his job, his marksmanship, investigative skills, and tactical proficiency are also in question?

Be honest. Don’t you make these judgments? Certainly, there are unfit first responders who are indeed professional in their preparation and knowledge in other areas of job performance, but aren’t these the exception, rather than the rule?  Even for these individuals, increasing their fitness would only enhance their professionalism. 

In our work, we’ve found that physical training improves all areas of job performance. Athletes who commit to training soon commit to professional reading and coursework, job and professional advancement, and addressing lingering personal life issues.

Haven’t you seen the same with individuals in your department?

Silent acceptance of unfit first responders erodes professionalism at the unit at all levels and in every area. It hinders public perception and everyone’s ability to do his/her job. No one respects a de-conditioned cop or firefighter and his/her lack of fitness reflects poorly on the entire department. Stop tolerating it.

Silent acceptance = quiet approval.


How to speak up?

Link fitness to safety. An unfit first responder is an unacceptable safety risk.

No police chief or fire chief would accept an essential piece of gear which could fail under stress.  Any police chief who knowingly tolerated defective body armor for his officers would risk his job. Any fire chief who knowingly tolerated flawed SCBA masks for his firefighters would likewise, risk his command.

Currently, at nearly every fire and police department in the US, police and fire chiefs are knowingly accepting continued employment of unfit officers and firefighters. These unfit members are a demonstrative risk to your safety. Why are you tolerating it?

Instead of fitness standards, think safety standards. Instead of minimum PFT scores being acceptable, identify the score on a PFT which meets an acceptable safety standard.

A quick note on “legacy” members.

In the military, guys past 40 years old are no longer at the tip of the spear. While there are exceptions, most military members past 40 are in command positions or driving desks.

However, it’s entirely possible for a first responder to still be arresting bad guys and fighting fires well into his late 50’s. Shouldn’t there be different fitness standards for these “legacy” department members based on age?

The answer? Not at all. There are no slow bullets or weak bad guys made special for old cops. As well, there are no cool, slow-moving fires made special for old firefighters. These job environments are deadly, and unforgiving, regardless of age.

I’ve heard the argument that “legacy” members’ job experience and tactical knowledge can make up for decreased fitness. Don’t be distracted by this argument. The nature of the work is it’s unpredictable, and first responders need to be physically prepared for the worst. Legacy members should know this more than anyone. 

Legacy members who want to stay in the fight need to meet the same, minimum safety standards all other members on the front lines: marksmanship, tactical, physical, etc. 


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After we published this article in April 2016, we received significant feedback/reaction. Click HERE to read how others reacted.



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