Health and Fitness: Creating the Culture

Proper training for the health of firefighters should be the focus of every firehouse

Tap to view video. From a physical demands standpoint, what we do in the field is unique to our profession, and our physical training needs to be the same—specific to what we do. (Photos by author.)

When you think about the toughest obstacles firefighters face, obvious things come to mind: structure fires, bad calls that stick with you, losing a colleague. Line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) are a risk every emergency responder accepts when they commit to this calling. But what you may not realize is that more than half of all LODDs in the fire service are cardiac and stress related, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)—not from lack of knowledge, not from lack of preparedness, and not from lack of equipment. The health of the firefighter is a vital piece of the fire service puzzle and should be a focus of proper training in every firehouse in the country.

Because of the NFPA, we also know that firefighter injuries remain unchanged per 1,000 fires, and the leading cause of injury is strains and sprains. Stress levels are up, which leads to problems with stress management and sleep disorders. The most recent statistic shown is that 59 percent of firefighters will battle cancer in their lifetime and are 1,450 percent more likely to get injured on the job than an average person. These statistics are not argued but rather ignored because we feel lost on how to battle such a tough opponent. The solution is something our industry does better than anyone: training.

The health of the firefighter is a vital piece of the fire service puzzle and should be a focus of proper training in every firehouse in the country.

The health of the firefighter is a vital piece of the fire service puzzle and should be a focus of proper training in every firehouse in the country.

Training for Health

From a physical demands standpoint, what we do in the field is unique to our profession, and our physical training needs to be the same—specific to what we do. I use the term “tactical athletes” because the only difference between firefighters and professional athletes is athletes know when their game is coming and when they need to perform at the highest level, and ours can happen at the drop of a dime whenever those tones go off.

A tactical athlete’s training program needs to be structured for the individual needs of the department, though some things are consistent. We know from research that all tactical athletes have problems in three areas: knees, lower backs, and shoulders. So, having dynamic movements geared toward reducing risk of injuries and strengthening in those areas are needed for any program. This does not mean working out hard on a consistent basis; it’s about creating a foundation for yourself to build on. Whether I am training a professional athlete, powerlifter, bodybuilder, or tactical athlete, it is essential to create a base first before overstraining the body and risking injury.

The number one reason for opposition is how to fit a physical training program into an already busy training schedule. For full-time, part-time, and volunteer departments, it is about making the commitment and knowing it will pay off. Having a coach to guide the program to fit the needs of the department and make it complement what the department is already doing is a key to long-term success. Many times, an individual with a passion for fitness is already in the department and would be ideal for keeping the program on track and helping take the department to the next level.

Structuring a basic training plan for a department takes two major ingredients for success: buy-in from the top and results. When you talk to leadership in the fire service, many will tell you that having good physical capabilities would be one of their top three qualities of a tactical employee, so showing them how this will benefit their department is the first step. You will be grooming healthier individuals, which means less sick days, injuries, and overexertion issues; higher levels of performance; and a better quality of life outside of the firehouse and after retirement. If they truly care about their people, this will not be tough.

Functional Training

From the firefighters’ perspective, they need to see results, that their investment into a training program is paying off. The first thing they will learn is taking care of their health will keep them in the career they love much longer. Movements need to be immediately transferable to job-related skills; many times, fitness programs are geared more toward linear strength instead of strength in movement, balance, core, and spinal support. Lifting a ladder, swinging an ax, carrying or dragging weight, crawling, and lifting are all job-related physical capabilities that must be trained on to stay safe and to improve.

Equipment for functional training like this can vary, but the tools of choice are typically right in your firehouse. Outside of that, some cost-effective and extremely versatile tools are sandbags; resistance bands; PVC piping; and, of course, the most important piece of equipment, the firefighters. Teaching them how to use their body with proper form for mechanical advantage is important in making it transferable to duty. A key point to remember is our posture will dictate our strength because of the laws of leverage. Tools like sandbags, which shift weight, and PVC, which allows coaches to give feedback on engagement, help drive muscle memory into practice. Along with using ladders, poles, tools, and other pieces of everyday equipment, functional training tools allow the department to implement a physical fitness program cost effectively.

Equipment for functional training like this can vary, but the tools of choice are typically right in your firehouse.

Equipment for functional training like this can vary, but the tools of choice are typically right in your firehouse.

Maximal Effort Training

If functional fitness training is the good child of the fire service, then maximal effort training is the evil twin brother: misunderstood, highly effective if used properly, and needing lots of attention. Maximal effort training needs to be, again, very specific to the fire service. Being very strong in just one line in a proprioceptive environment does not translate to our line of work. Our frames need to be solid; our form needs to be good; and turning our motor on full speed, as we do in the fire service, must be trained on. Finding out how far you can push your body should never be attempted in a high-risk, low-frequency situation. You cannot expect your body to perform like a jet airplane when you run it like a lawn mower. Four movements critical to this type of training are wide stance squats, sumo deadlifts, bench press, and the clean and press. Coaching these dynamic movements with how they apply to the fire service needs to be specific.

Passion and Conviction

The way a message of creating a culture of health and fitness must be delivered is with passion and conviction. It is something that must be truly believed, not just delivered like a lesson plan. There will be questions, fears, and hesitations because this is a part of a big scary concept—change. In reality, we are not changing anything; we are complementing what departments are already doing—training for the obstacles that firefighters face.

The statement we have all heard is we take care of our own first. There’s no better way to do that than keeping your firefighters healthy and in battle with the right tools in place. Do you truly believe you’re the best firefighter you can possibly be? Are you putting in 100 percent effort to be the best you can be, on and off the job? Are you thinking about what life will be like after you’re done? This may seem like a difficult road ahead, but I know you will not fail. How? Simple—you are a firefighter.

By Brandon Green

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 is a coach with the BEDYNAMIC training program and is a national presenter and writer on firefighter fitness and wellness. Green founded his own fitness system and fitness facility, training all walks of life from neuromuscular diseases to professional athletes but specializes in tactical fitness. Contact him at brandon@baraboopulse.com

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Pennwell