The Unfit Firefighter – Who’s Responsible?

Article by Michael Stefano

The State of Firehouse Fitness Today

With the high rate of on duty fatalities and serious injuries, scores of documented studies citing compelling proof as to why every firefighter should workout, as well as endless federal mandates and difficult physicals, you’d think it would be relatively easy to get firefighters to participate in some form of physical conditioning program. But unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Firefighters play the blame-game, citing department indifference or lack of a comprehensive, realistic approach. But the responsibility to be physically prepared ultimately lies with the individual, because if nothing changes, it’s the firefighter who suffers most.

I feel the lack of motivation to exercise comes from a lack of positive direction, and the firefighter’s inability to achieve goals or make real improvements on their own. Most firefighters don’t seem to understand what they’re training for, and continue to train like power lifters or bodybuilders in the gym, and distance runners in the field.

Strength AND Endurance training needs to be combined; marry the two together and consider it as one element. Strength that endures over the time frame of a typical firefighting effort such as the three examples listed following the short scenario below. Typically, a firefighter makes a 10 to 20 minute all out effort, while under varying degrees of load.

Thirty-second sets in the gym and 30 minutes of cardio doesn’t come close to.

Panicked occupants perched at every street font window, as dense, black smoke pushed them to sill’s edge. Every firefighter at the scene of that inferno poured their last shred of physical energy into putting out that fire and delivering everyone to safety before collapsing themselves from pure physical exhaustion. I’ll never forget the overwhelming effort that went into that afternoon’s mass-rescue of over a dozen trapped occupants in less than five minutes.

Used in the rescue were typical department portable ladders that can easily outweigh the average adult male, and extend up to an awkward 35 feet (three stories) in length. A fully extended ladder represents a substantial top-heavy load that can be hard to control, especially when distraught occupants are grabbing wildly at the tip. There are times when these monster ladders are needed in a hurry.

To control any structural fire, hand-held hose lines spew over 200 gallons of water per minute, and typical backpressure can be severe (up to 250 PSI). It takes two capable individuals to control a single hose line. What is, in essence, a giant water gun (bazooka might be a more appropriate term) must be advanced and operated simultaneously – I assure you, this is no easy feat, but what puts out every fire.

In the New York City, the typical residential apartment doors feature multiple locks or sometimes advanced security systems, and often are of steel construction. Hydraulic forcible entry tools are not to be relied upon, and professional firefighters must posses the know-how AND explosive force (power and strength) over an extended period of time (endurance) to pry open locked doors with a 10-pound maul and pry bar.

Here’s a short list of some typical firefighter tasks that also demand a high level of strength-endurance:
  • Handling / raising / extending heavy duty ladders
  • Rescue and removal of trapped or unconscious victims
  • Advancing, operating high pressure hose lines
  • Forcible entry of highly secure doors and windows
  • Structural overhaul / complete removal of walls and ceilings with hand tools
  • Hauling large diameter hose and other heavy equipment
  • Operating with 50 or more pounds of protective gear
  • Operating high-torque power rescue tools, saws
By taking a quick look at the typical tasks it’s easy to see how the strength-endurance training should be an important aspect of firefighting.

Pushing Limits with Training Specificity
Through hands on training with men and women at all levels, I’ve discovered some of the most efficient ways to mimic workloads and timing sequences of typical fire department operations. Exercises, such as the dumbbell squat press or the low cable deadlift/row, as well as kettlebell jerks and snatches, place huge demands on the human body’s explosive strength and work capacity.

Forget about isolation or fretting about the effect on a particular muscle or muscle group. The dynamic qualities of speed, power, endurance, strength, balance, timing, conditioning, coordination, and general overall performance are prioritized.

Real progress is accomplished by pushing your limits of strength AND endurance with sustained, explosive sets that in some sense mimic the duration of many firefighting operations. As a bonus, a greater level of safety is built directly into a program that doesn’t call for dangerously heavy resistance as the only method to create intensity.

What builds strength? Moving a heavy level resistance few times. What builds endurance? Moving a low level resistance many times. So, what’s the best way to build the strength/endurance (one word) that I need for every fire I fight? Moving a challenging, but moderate, level of resistance in a safe and functional capacity many times within one extended set, or in sequential loops of various nonstop sets.

List of 18 Possible Strength Endurance Exercises:
  • Push Up
  • Hindu Push Up
  • Pull Up
  • Jump Squat
  • Squat, Machine, Barbell or Dumbbell
  • Squat Thrust or Mountain Climber
  • Squat Press
  • Overhead Press
  • Push Press
  • Kettlebell or Dumbbell Swing
  • Kettlebell Jerk
  • Kettlebell Snatch
  • Cable Dead Lift and Row
  • Dumbbell Dead Lift
  • Yoga Plank
  • Step Up
  • Lunge, Forward, Rear and Side
  • Wind Sprints

My custom firefighter programs feature many of the listed exercises, and will form part of a Strength-Endurance System, designed around your exact needs.