Developing basic firefighter skills with engaging physical training
In 1986, when I attended the Georgia Smoke Diver course, I knew that I would be subject to some very rigorous physical training. I prepared like I thought I should by doing a lot of running on the track, running stadium steps, and lifting weights—that’s about all I knew to do. That’s what I did to train for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1001, Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications, firefighter physical standard test a few years earlier. That’s what I did in high school as part of gym class and sports, so it must be the right thing to do.
Lesson in Humility
Once class started and we had completed all the NFPA 1001 requirements (1½ miles in less than 13 minutes, 10 pull-ups, walked a beam, climbed some stairs with hose), we all felt pretty confident. Enter a very muscled up, tank-top-wearing instructor, Walter Rucker, who was part physical fitness god and unquestionably insanely motivated to teach us a lesson in humility and, oh yeah, he was just plain insane.
The first day, we did push-ups on a four count, 20 to be exact (which means 40), but we got to 16, 17, or 18 and would have to start over because we were not together as a group. The weight of the all-aluminum cylinder started to dig the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) into my back as we approached well over 80 push-ups. Then, there were the mountain climbers with that SCBA slamming the back of my head. Just keep going was all I could think about. As the hour-plus-long session of calisthenics ended, we had lost four or five classmates who couldn’t take it and walked off. We were all in a state of shock over what we had just endured.
The physical training at the Georgia Smoke Diver program was and is not designed to get a person in shape; its sole function is to wear the body down, impact the psychological state of the students, and get them to a certain place that requires them to function in a stress-induced state while completing firefighting skills, both individually and as team—real stress inoculation.
Skills-Based Obstacle Course
Thanks to some very brave and forward-thinking leaders back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the concept of using a skills-based obstacle course took shape. Nineteen job-related skill stations were developed to take advantage of the time and get the most bang for the buck. While the course was a 45-minute-long grueling struggle to hoist hose, pull ceiling, climb through attics, force doors, drag victims, and carry equipment, we found recovery time was faster and the course was a little lacking in both the cardio and muscle fatigue we needed the students in. It did provide some of results we were looking for, but one of the greatest benefits was air consumption, learning the gear, and mastering basic skills and techniques, all while getting in a pretty good workout.
In the end, a combination of traditional stretches, push-ups, mountain climbers, etc., remained as a warm-up and additional psychological stress, just not in the full form it once served. The obstacle course has evolved over the years and, while basic firefighter training should not be conducted at the advanced level of the Georgia Smoke Diver course, there are some lessons and philosophies that should apply to any recruit academy.
More Than Just Physical Fitness
Repetition is the mother of skill, but many academies fail to take advantage of physical training time and instead opt for only the traditional calisthenics. A firefighter skills-based obstacle course can be designed to enhance many basic skills as well as build strength and increase cardiovascular conditioning and adaptability.
Working in our gear is no joke and adds to physical stress placed on our bodies. Becoming acclimated to this level of work in gear takes time, and it is important to condition ourselves in the actual equipment. So many extremely fit firefighters have attempted and failed the Georgia Smoke Diver course. These have included those who have successfully competed in Ironman races, marathons, triathlons, and the like. The common denominator has been that they trained by running, swimming, and biking in workout gear. When they spent that first 21⁄2 hours in firefighter gear working out and completing the obstacle course before a three-mile run in regular PT clothes, they were spent. Meanwhile, the person who ran just enough to work up his cardio, worked on strength, and trained in gear at least three to four times a week motored through like a diesel engine.
Designing the Courses
Firefighter obstacle courses can be designed for both fitness and skill improvement. An example would be hoisting a hoseline to an upper-floor window or up a stairwell. Working in teams of two, one member could carry the line in while the other is ascending the stairs with the rope bag, the rope bag is deployed, one firefighter has to tie the line and the other hoist, they meet up at the designated floor, hook the line up and advance it, then break it down and pack it back up for the next team. Or, if you need them to move fast, simply hoist and lower the hose a few times each.
Skill stations have to be designed with the number of candidates in mind. All obstacles need to basically take the same amount of time to accomplish if you have a large group. If you have a smaller group, you may be able to design obstacles that take longer to accomplish without causing a backup at a particular obstacle. You don’t have to invent crazy things to accomplish in these basic training programs. Ascending the stairs with equipment, taking your SCBA off to pass through a wall, redonning the SCBA, and descending the stairs are examples of everyday task level skills.
Heart attacks are still the number one killer of firefighters—by a long shot. We can spend a tremendous amount of time debating what fire tactics are safe or unsafe. We can get emotionally distracted by the rare dramatic traumatizing events when firefighters are injured or killed in a collapse or an explosion, or trapped and cut off by fire, but it is the less dramatic collapse of the person while on the scene, after the call, or off-duty that is the real problem. While medical screening plays a huge role in identifying risk factors, the way we train is also vital to conditioning ourselves and members for the actual work environment. Yes, I am proud of you for working out and being able to run 26 miles, but in gear can you throw the 24-foot ladder, carry the saw, get to the roof, open it up, come down and search the two exposure apartments, refill your cylinder, and be ready to go if I need you somewhere else?