Why do we, as firefighters, check our apparatus daily? Because when we need it to perform at a high level, we want to know it’s going to work. Our lives and our community depend on it. We need to be able to rely on it without a second thought. There’s always money in the budget for maintenance and fixes because leadership understand that for a high-performance machine to work it needs to be taken care of, have fuel to burn, and be used frequently for optimal performance.
But the reality is the apparatus and all the equipment are empty shells without the most valuable resource we have in the fire service—the firefighter. As an industry, we need to start thinking of and treating ourselves with the same importance as the multimillion dollars’ worth of machinery that fills our stations.
The human body is no different than a fire truck; often, daily checks of mobility, strength, and flexibility are skipped, proper fuel is missed, and budget cuts eliminate some of the tools used for training the body to answer the call. If an apparatus breaks down, what do we do? We invest everything we can to get it to work—time, money, personnel. We have to get it running at all costs.
Are our firefighters any different? What happens when their bodies start to break down? There must be an attitude toward health and safety in the house, on the tailboards, and beyond.
Leadership will see the importance of healthy firefighters as both a performance and financial benefit. Being physically capable is one of the most important traits of a good firefighter. Firefighters are the ones you send into battle; are you giving them all the tools they need to safely accomplish what you ask them to do? From a financial standpoint, you are dramatically decreasing their risk of injury or death, both while serving and after retirement, while also decreasing medical costs to the department by creating healthier employees, which means fewer missed days of work and injury claims.
At the firefighter level, it is shown that functional training makes them better tactical employees, allows them to perform at a higher level, and ultimately adds years onto their lives and careers. There is a Mayday happening every day that we are struggling to answer: 59 percent of line-of-duty deaths are related to overexertion, stress, or medical, and injuries per 1,000 fires remain unchanged in more than 30 years. So again, what can we do? The answer is something we do very well—train! Redirecting some efforts, time, and funds is all it takes to become better tactical athletes. Note the term athletes; the only difference between firefighters and professional athletes is that professional athletes know when they have to perform at a high level. NFL players know they need to be ready to play on Sunday afternoons; we don’t get that luxury. We need to be ready to play at any given moment when those tones go off.
If your firefighters think they don’t need functional training because they already go to the gym a few times a week, tell them to think again. Exercise for the general population and firefighters is very different. Tactical athletes need very specific movements and training that is geared toward what we do in the field. Having such a wide range of calls that we respond to means it is important that the training program is dynamic and not static. Training based on functional movements, teaching muscle memory with proper form, and maximum effort to teach the body to exert at high levels safely are all directly reflective of job skills in the fire service.
There’s also no need to pony up for gym memberships or gyms in the firehouses for every firefighter. Functional movements can be done where we already train—right in the station. We already have many pieces of equipment that are great training tools, including ladders, hose packs, stairs, and vent simulators. Some additional tools like sandbags, resistance bands, and tires can be purchased inexpensively for added effectiveness in developing a training program. Using these tools in a circuit-style training system is a great way to get started and allow firefighters to work at different levels depending on their current abilities.
Maximum effort is typically going to involve a more traditional sense of strength training that athletes have been using for years to become better at their trade and is effective for fire athletes as well. It requires a higher level of understanding of the body, leverage, and form for implementation but has very high returns in making firefighters better at what we do. The criticism behind traditional strength training is that weights are proprioceptive, and nothing in our line of work is balanced, so why are we training like that? While there is truth to that argument, teaching the body to be stronger is something that needs to be done in a safe way, and keeping the body balanced with proper form when exerting will dramatically decrease the risk of injury when we are giving it all on a call.
Regardless of the training type or form, it needs to be something that is a department standard and mindset. Having this training done on duty, as a team, and consistently is much more effective than giving firefighters a program to complete on their own time. The culture you are creating with this form of training is priceless—teamwork, struggling together to accomplish a goal, and the bond between firefighters that it brings.
For departments working together daily, that means adding it to a daily task list and not putting it aside because of lack of time. For departments that train together once a week, it means taking a small part of each training night to dedicate to this training and not putting it aside because of time. It needs to be a priority.
Nutrition also needs to be relabeled in the fire service as fuel. Nutrition is not about looking good with a beach body or depriving yourself to lose weight; it’s just fuel. Think of it this way: What would happen if you put gas for your lawn mower in an F-16 fighter jet? Or, better yet, what happens to a fire when it has no fuel?
Consistently having a balanced intake and a basic understanding of macronutrients, especially carbohydrates, should be something each house spends time on or invests in an external resource that can help. Nutrition is a lifestyle, not a diet.
Eating a piece of pizza is not going to have a major negative affect; eating pizza every day as a sole source of fuel will not allow you to perform to your true capabilities.
You are gifted. You are special. How do I know that? Because you are a firefighter. You are outside of the normal. You run toward what others run away from; you put others before yourself; you risk your life for total strangers on a daily basis; and you don’t know how to quit, how to lose, how to give up. Let’s use that amazing spirit to push each other to always grow; always give it your all to improve; and, when we recognize something that needs to be made better, give it our all. Thank you for your service.
Brandon Green is a firefighter with the Baraboo (WI) Fire Department and lead trainer for the department’s tactical fitness program. He is an instructor for the Madison Area Technical College fire program. Green is a graduate of the World Instructors Training School recognized by NCCA ACE and IACET and has been coaching and training for 15 years. He founded his own fitness system and fitness facility, training all walks of life from neuromuscular diseases to traditional strength but specializing in tactical fitness. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.