By Rob Shaul
Several studies have been conducted on Firefighters’ work-related fitness demands. Below is a summary of some of the more interesting findings.
Which Fitness Assessments Translate Best to Job-Related Tasks?
In 2004 researchers at Arizona State University partnered with the Phoenix Fire Department to identify which fitness assessments best predicted performance on a Job-Related Performance Test. (1)
Twenty full time, professional firefighters (20 men, 3 women) were put through a wide range of fitness assessments:
- Cardiovascular Endurance: 12-Minute Cooper Run Test
- Anaerobic Power/Endurance: 400m Sprint for Time
- Muscular Strength: 5RM Bench Press and Back Squat
- Muscular Endurance: Max reps of a variety of exercises including bench press (45.5 kg), Bent Over Row (20.5kg dumbbell with dominant hand), dumbbell bicep curls (13.6kg), seated dumbbell shoulder press (11.4kg).
- Body Composition via Bod Pod
After these fitness assessments, firefighters were put through 4 job-related tasks, while wearing bunker gear and an SBCA. They rested 10 minutes between tasks. The four tasks were:
- Hose Pull – 2-in uncharged (dry) fire hose pulled 65.5 m, for time.
- Stair Climb – 22-Kg High Rise hose pack carried up and down 5 flights of stairs, for time.
- Victim Drag – 80Kg dummy dragged 30m backward, for time.
- Equipment Hoist – 16kg of hose housed 5 flights by rope, for time.
After statistical analysis, the researchers found the job-performance tasks placed demands on upper body muscular strength, muscular endurance (upper and lower), and anaerobic power/endurance. The one assessment they strongly recommended fire services adopt is the 400m sprint for time. “The 400m run is a simple and time-efficient test and should be used to examine the ability of a firefighter to perform highly intense exertion for medium time spans 45-90 seconds.”
Lifting, Pulling, working with Heavy Stuff, and VO2 Max
Canadian researchers in 1992 conducted a task analysis of firefighting operations and determined the most physically demanding tasks in terms of strength end endurance were lifting and carrying objects up to 80 pounds, pulling objects up to 135 pounds, and working with objects in the front of the body up to 125 pounds. (2)
The researchers determined found that 90 percent of firefighting tasks were not very aerobically demanding – requiring just a mean VO2 of 23 ml/kg.min-1. They continued and determined the minimum VO2 max standard for firefighter operations was just 45 ml/kg.min-1.
Unfortunately, this VO2 max standard has been used by some fire services as the sole fitness standard for firefighters, and used an easy step up or treadmill VO2 test as the sole fitness assessment and contradicted a 1982 study (3) of 100 firefighters which found that high muscular strength and endurance, coupling with “near maximal aerobic capacity” were required to completed simulated fire ground tasks.
This study also found that lean body weight, and body composition also helped predict job-performance tasks.
Another study in 2010 (4) put 20 Italian firefighters through 4 consecutive job-related tasks (child rescue, 250m run, find an exit, 250m run) and analyzed the energy requirement, sources, mean VO2 and heart rate, and the relationship between job completion time and firefighter fitness level. Contradicting the Canadian study, this study found a lack of significant correlation between job completion time and aerobic fitness. The researchers determined that firefighting is an unpredictable occupation requiring adequate fitness levels across a range of energy demands and energy systems. Instead of cardio-only training, the researchers recommended specific interval training across a “wide variety of tasks requiring differing intensities.”
Most common firefighter acute injuries are soft tissue sprains and skeletal muscle strains to the low back, shoulders, and knees (9). However, cardiovascular disease – specifically heart attacks related to poor fitness, cause around half of firefighter deaths on duty. (10)
Nothing on Paramedic/EMS Duties
While firefighters have received a significant amount of study attention, paramedics haven’t. However, many full-time firefighters also serve as paramedics, and often the volume of paramedic work is much greater than the time they spend fighting fires. In my review, I found no similar studies on the fitness demands for paramedics. Anecdotally, in working last year with firefighters at Des Moines, IA, I learned that often the most physically demanding situations they find themselves in, are as paramedics moving often overweight patients onto gurneys and into the ambulance.
According to the National Association of EMTs (NAEMT) “obese patients directly contribute to increasing levels of lifting injuries among EMS practitioners.
The NAEMT reports …
- EMS providers are seven times more likely to miss work as a result of injury
- Half of all EMS workers suffer back pain
- One out of Four EMS workers suffers a career-ending injury with the first 4 years of service
- Back injury is the leading reason for leaving EMS
- Back injuries are often the result of cumulative wear and tear
Thoughts Moving Forward
Often in my work, I’ve found research is far behind the practice of strength and conditioning as well as the changes in the activity or sport. Researches are often boxed in by scientific study criteria and forced to narrow study scope to the point results aren’t practically applicable in the field. However, as in the case of the Canadian study above, sometimes one narrow study can lead to a fitness conclusion which biases strength and conditioning application for years after. Certainly, there is more work to be done, beginning with the fitness demands of the paramedic side of a full-time firefighter’s duty.
- Physical Fitness and Job Performance of Firefighters, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2004, 18(2)
- Characterization of the physical demands of Firefighting, Can J Sport Sci. 1992 Sep;17(3)
- Relationship between simulated fire fighting tasks and physical performance measures, Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1982; 14:(1).
- Design and Implementation of Fitness Programs for Firefighters, NSCA Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, V33, N4, Aug 2011
- Emergency Duties and Deaths from Heart Disease Among Firefighters in the United States, New England Journal of Medicine 356, 2007
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