What is a Culture of Fitness? Why does it matter?

fire training sledge

By Rob Shaul


This article was first published in June 2015.


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.

This tragic incident came to our attention because Firefighter A weighed over 300 pounds, and by any measure, was severely de-conditioned.

The department knew about this but 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.

Prior to the incident, others in the department would joke about Firefighter A.  Overall, it’s not unfair to say that this department had a non-existent, or poor, Culture of Fitness.

We reached out to two active duty, mid-level full-time firefighters about this case to see if they’d heard about it and asked why Firefighter A’s fitness and size wouldn’t be mentioned in the official case study.

“I was not aware of the incident but I'm afraid it is a somewhat common scenario, albeit a pretty dramatic case,” responded one of the leaders. “We examine LODD's in detail in an attempt to pinpoint the cause. Equipment failures, communication issues, tactics, training, etc. But the fire service as a whole is rather shy about calling out our brothers and sisters for their lack of fitness.”
“Firefighters and media will criticize and second guess tactics, manpower, and equipment all day long, but addressing a lack of fitness is rarely seen,” replied the second leader. “It's unfortunate.”

Hindsight is 20/20, obviously. But it’s not unfair to surmise that a borderline 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, post-incident, the department acknowledged that fitness was an issue in this tragedy. After this event, fitness became a priority for the department.

An unfit firefighter, policeman, or soldier is not only a danger to himself, but also to his teammates. This is obvious to the guys on the tip of the spear.

Ideally, individual professionalism would kick in, and this wouldn’t be an issue. But it doesn’t work that way.

The military, through required, high jeopardy fitness assessments, can regulate fitness somewhat.

Law Enforcement and Fire/Rescue agencies and departments, however, rarely have this sharp-edged tool available. Unions and court cases and some “legacy members” (old, veteran guys on the force) fight the establishment of high-jeopardy fitness assessments.

This isn’t going to change anytime soon, so we’ve begun to explore this idea of a “Culture of Fitness” at a unit, and how this culture can grow and foster a professional approach to fitness.

We’re worked on a process/system to identify and score a unit’s Culture of Fitness. The process included a survey of unit members, fitness assessments, leadership interviews, admin questions like if the unit has available training gear and on-duty time to train, and first-hand observation of gear use.

Can you have a fit unit, a good “Culture of Fitness” without a required, high jeopardy fitness assessment?

We think so – certainly, there are always individuals at every unit who make fitness a professional commitment. As well, we’ve all seen small units, teams, etc. which prioritize fitness and stand out amongst the bigger organization. Examples include SWAT teams in law enforcement, HAZMAT and Dive teams in Fire/Rescue, RECON platoons in Army and Marine companies, the Ranger Regiment in the Big Army.

Certainly, these smaller units can attribute their higher Culture of Fitness to their specialized role or job, but it’s also true they attract a certain individual.

But many non-specialized units and teams are known for their fitness. Examples include the highest-performing platoon in a battalion on the PFT, a certain Hotshot Crew, one station in a multi-station fire department.

Often this emphasis on fitness is leadership-driven, but not always. Sometimes it’s part of that unit’s culture and endures through leadership changes.

In these tactical professions, few would argue that fitness isn’t key to job performance. But without a high jeopardy, job-related fitness assessment, holding individuals accountable can be difficult.

This is where a Culture of Fitness matters, and why it is important. “Culture” implies an agreed to unit-wide standard and expectation. There is team social pressure to be fit, but support, encouragement, and resources to do so, as well.

We’ve worked mostly with the military, and for those units with a strong Culture of Fitness, doing well on the service-wide fitness assessment is a minimum standard. They have their own unit-specific assessments and standards, plus a strong cultural expectation that holds individuals accountable.

This strong Culture of Fitness is not a burden for these units. It’s a source of professionalism and pride.



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