Lessons and Observations From The Firehouse Expo

Adam Scott, MS, CSCS

We spent three days at the National Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, Maryland.  Our Fire/Rescue (F/R) Athlete programming has been in the works for sometime now, and with the publication and release of our three new F/R Athlete Training Plans we saw this expo as a chance to reach out and engage with the F/R community on a larger scale.

Here is a brief summary of our observations and what we learned from the conference. 

The Firefighter Population is as Physically Varied as They Come

We spoke to hundreds of firefighters during our three day visit.  We had conversations with full-time departments and volunteers.  We met young firefighters, fresh from their academies and seasoned veterans, still running into buildings at 65.  We spoke with district chiefs, commissioners and fresh-faced probationary firefighters.  We talked with ultra-runners and powerlifters – not to mention more than a few couch potatoes.

From a programming standpoint this variety might seem like a huge hurdle. Well, it isn’t, not really.  True, a good firefighter fitness program would need to account for a wide variety of athletes, but in-the-end the firefighter job demands remain the same regardless of age, gender, height and weight.  Whether a firefighter is 25 or 65, whether they weigh 150 pounds or 250 pounds – a 50ft hose is a 50ft hose, an axe is an axe, a victim is a victim and a stair is a stair.   

Excuses are Abundant…

And I think we heard them all:  “We are too old.”  “We are young.  We don’t need to train.”  “We don’t know what to do.”  “We don’t have the time.”  “We don’t have the space or the equipment.”  “We don’t get support from our captains or administration.” etc.

Generally speaking most firefighters we spoke with were interested in being more fit.

Unfortunately, most seemed more interested in the idea than actually doing the work.  Clearly there are things that captains, chiefs and administrations can do to help firefighters improve their fitness – provided education, programming, training, resources and nutrition; supply equipment, time, support and incentives. 

But, ultimately, the fit firefighters we spoke to had made their physical training a priority regardless of the obstacles. They considered it an individual, professional, responsibility. 

Building a larger fitness culture may be independent of top-down buy-in. Often, initiatives can come from the bottom-up.

Firefighter Health and Safety is a Growing Concern, While Fitness is an Afterthought

The topic of firefighter health and safety came up often.  It is great to see organizations and administrations focusing on caring for their people.  Firefighter health was a major discussion point for more than a few educational sessions.  Not to mention that health/wellness professionals and organizations had numerous booths around the expo. 

We saw a major focus on back injuries, sleep depravation, cardiac incidents and cancer.  However, very rarely did these conversations address the role that firefighter fitness (or lack of fitness) plays in these health problems.  Clearly fitness is not the only tool we need in addressing these serious problems, but no prevention or management solution would be complete without addressing the contribution that fitness can make.

Fit firefighters aren’t training for their job

I don’t recall speaking to a single firefighter who actually trained specifically for their job.  Most firefighters had some type of outside interest or hobby which motivated and shaped their training.  Triathletes were logging hours on bikes, runs and in the pool.  Crossfitters were doing their daily WODs.  Bodybuilders were pumping their bicep curls and benchpresses.

While it was great to see firefighters taking initiative on their fitness they seemed to do so while overlooking the fitness demands of their profession.  There is some cross-over between the training these firefighters are doing and the jobs they have to perform, but a physically demanding profession calls for a professional approach to training.

Is a 130 pound endurance athlete going to have the strength to breach a door or drag a victim?  Is a 250 pound bodybuilder going to have the endurance to climb stairs and carry hoses during a long fire?  It seems that both of these athletes could use some supplemental, F/R specific training to ensure they are fit for their duties – after all their profession and their co-works depend on it.        

There are some people trying to make a difference in firefighter fitness

We spoke with hundreds of individuals from the firefighter community.  Some took more coaxing than others, but, more often than not, the ones who approached us did so because they wanted to make a difference in firefighter fitness culture.

Individuals from nearly every level of the fire service told us how they were trying to make a difference in their station, department and community.  It was refreshing to see such enthusiasm – even if it was a minority sentiment.  To these individuals I encourage you to keep pushing and continue to lead by example. 

I also want to point out a two fitness and fire professionals who are working hard to make a difference.  They both gave excellent presentations and lead discussions on firefighter fitness training:  Fire Chief Michael O’Brien of Brighton Area Fire Authority in Michigan and Firefighter/Trainer Sarah Apgar from Fit Fighter Training.  Both Michael and Sarah are great advocates for firefighter fitness and, hopefully, the beginning of a growing trend.

Moving Forward

Time after time we were told how far the F/R services had come in the last 10-20 years.  We heard stories of cultures that actively prevented fitness and scorned on-duty training.  If this is that case, then we have definitely come a long way. 

However, there is still a long road ahead.  According to the National Fire Protection Association, as of 2013 there were over 1.14 million firefighters in the US.  Of that, 354,600 (31%) are career firefighters and 786,150 (69%) are volunteer.  With a population this large and dispersed cultural change is going to take time. 

Moving forward here are three things I think will help the transition: 

More Research

With the F/R service taking a deeper interest in health and safety issues we have an opportunity to push for the inclusion of fitness focused research.  “How does fitness effect mental acuity during sleep depravation?”  “How can training mitigate injuries in the Fire Service?” “Does improved Firefighter fitness correlate to lower instances of cancer?”    

Two of these research questions have obvious answers found in research on other populations- fitness equals fewer injuries and fitness and health decrease cancer rates. But, to get F/R buy in, similar studies likely needs to be done on this unique population.

The question concerning fitness and mental acuity caused by sleep deprivation is research we haven’t seen – and could be something we take up.

The key is going to be finding academic partners, fitness professionals and F/R departments who are willing to take the initiative and push the topic.  Institutions are requiring hard evidence and we can provided it.  Some of this is already being done at places like the International Firefighter Cancer Foundation, but there is still a lot of work ahead.

Better Resource Availability

Again, I think the F/R services are making great strides in their resource offerings.  The feedback we heard from F/R Peer Fitness Trainers (PFT) was that the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) has greatly improved their training and certification course.  Private companies are also starting to take notice and offer F/R specific training and education.  Local fitness facilities now regularly offer discounts and rewards for F/R employees who need an off-duty place to train.

One key tool missing from other, which we provide, is F/R specific fitness programming.  The Peer Fitness Trainers we spoke too all related that they could lead a training session, but didn’t know how to build one, or more importantly, and entire training cycle and year’s worth of F/R training.

Take it One Firefighter at a Time

Every firefighter who commits to his/her fitness is a step in the right direction.  If chiefs, departments and communities see enough interest they will have to act.  Anyone can take the initiative and make a difference…and once they do that initiative will spread.

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