Assessing and advancing the greatest tools in the fire service

CarolinaFireJournal - Christophir “Smitty” Smith
Christophir “Smitty” Smith
10/10/2014 -

Whether you work for a career or a volunteer department, if you are reading this journal, I bet it’s because you’re striving to be an expert firefighter. An expert is one who consistently outperforms colleagues and non-experts within a specific domain. Our domain in the fire service is physically demanding, requires a high level of competence across a broad spectrum of knowledge and skills, and places a premium on the amount of time on the job within a particular jurisdiction. Firefighters have historically been portrayed by the media and generally accepted by the public as an occupation of super-fit individuals. Sadly though, the reality is that far too many firefighters are out of shape. The demands of the job have been proven to outweigh the ability of most firefighters.


This mismatch between the high demands of firefighting tasks and poor individual fitness levels poses a serious risk for those we serve, our fellow firefighters and ourselves. The nature of our work is one that predisposes our members to negative health related issues, such as working in hazardous environments, sleep disruption, a high rate of contact with toxic carcinogens and a preponderance of on-duty hours that require low physical activity. Due to the previously stated reasons, firefighters have higher incidents of cardiovascular disease and cancer than the general population. It is also reported that there is a significantly higher risk of on-the-job injury rates than any other profession, including soldiers in combat.

It’s no secret that heart attacks due to stress and overexertion have been, and continue to be, the number one reason for line of duty deaths (LODD) in the United States, accounting for up to half of all fatalities each year. What is less publicized is that for every one LODD attributed to stress and overexertion, there are many non-fatal cardiovascular incidences that take place. These cardiovascular events are painful, costly, and can leave the firefighter in a state of health that will no longer allow him to participate in structural firefighting.

In 2006, the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation hosted a series of mini-summit meetings of specific topics that related to firefighter health and safety. One outcome was the realization that firefighters who are medically or physically unfit should be considered as placing themselves in danger as well compromising the mission of the organization and the safety of other firefighters. The participants also observed that the fire service often tends to send the wrong message or conflicting messages regarding health and fitness. While health and fitness issues are emphasized and widely supported in principle, the lack of physical fitness is often tolerated and individuals who die as a result of being unfit are honored as heroes. This situation shows a serious dichotomy between belief and behavior.

A prime example of this dichotomy is evident in the fact that an astounding 70 percent of fire departments in the United States do not have any form of a health and wellness program. Coupled with this, most fire departments do not mandate regular exercise training regimens or require maintenance of critical fitness parameters. During the NFFF mini-summit, a survey of 185 fire executives revealed that only 25 percent of fire departments utilize work sample testing for incumbent firefighters while 88 percent of departments use some type of physical ability testing for new hires and volunteers.

Another telling example is the difference between the number of overweight and obese firefighters at the beginning of their careers as compared to firefighters who have been in the fire service for a while. Candidates are generally chosen by fire departments based on higher fitness levels and their ability to learn. Through an academy, increasing a candidate’s physical fitness is a major component of ensuring he or she is mission-ready. But, depending on the study, somewhere between 73 percent and 88 percent of fire service personnel are either overweight or obese. These percentages of overweight and obese firefighters are higher than percentages found in the public we serve.

Over the course of a career the average firefighter will gain 1.2 to 3.4 pounds per year. This may seem insignificant but over the course of a 25 to 30 year career the amount of weight gained can be 35 to 85 pounds or more. This added fat weight places a significant amount of stress on the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular system. As we age, our bodies will lose muscle mass and strength will slowly decrease. This reduction of muscle mass coupled with an increase in body fat leads to a decreased work capacity and increased risk for overexertion and heart attacks.

So while fire departments are very interested in attracting and hiring the fit individuals, it seems as though most fire departments are far less interested in keeping their rosters fit. With everything I have previously stated, it may seem as though I am a pessimist regarding the fire services’ ability to do something regarding our poor fitness position. On the contrary, I am quite optimistic. I believe the fire service is at the beginning of a swell regarding health and fitness.

In 2012, the number of LODDs due to stress and overexertion were lower than the previous two years. I believe this is due in large part to organizations such as the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), International Association Fire Fighters (IAFF), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), American Council on Exercise (ACE), and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) as well as others who have produced an increasing amount of research literature, programs, codes, and specialized fitness certifications. NFPA codes 1500,1582,1583, the IAFF/IAFC - Wellness / Fitness Initiative, the NVFC - Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program, the ACE - Peer Fitness Trainer, and the NSCA - Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator are all prime examples of what type of resources are now available to departments looking to increase the health and wellness of their members.

These resources combine a mix of evidence-based research and protocols as well as presenting novel new approaches to improving fitness in the fire service. These resources are easily accessed and cost effective. If used properly, these resources will allow departments and individuals to decrease the gap between belief and behavior.

Another reason I believe we are at the beginning of a rise of fitness in the fire service is due to an interesting new paradigm shift that is starting to take foot in the strength and conditioning community; it’s the viewpoint that firefighters should be considered professional occupational athletes. When comparing traditional athletics to the fire service the similarities abound. The need for muscular strength and endurance, cardiorespiratory endurance, communication, and the importance of a coordinated team effort to accomplish a common goal are just a few of the similarities. This transition of perception is poised to be a powerful catalyst for a much needed cultural change within the fire service. This change places as high a value on physical fitness as it does for other important aspects of the job.

In order to become an expert firefighter, you must continually advance your knowledge base and your ability to carry out the demanding tasks required. To focus on one without the other would be a great disservice to yourself, those you serve and the loved ones who expect you to come home safely. You take great pride in your station, apparatus and the tools on it; but without you, they would all just lay idle. Take pride and personal responsibility for your own health and fitness, set an example for your crew, and assist with advancing the greatest tool in the fire service, you!

Christophir “Smitty” Smith is a firefighter and NCEMT-I for Carrboro Fire-Rescue Department in North Carolina where he serves as the Health and Fitness Coordinator. Smitty holds a bachelor of science degree in exercise sport science. He is a certified tactical strength and conditioning facilitator through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, a sports performance coach through USA Weightlifting and a CrossFit Level 1 Coach with Coaches Prep-Course. Smitty is available for speaking engagements upon request.

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