The Evolution of Fitness in the Fire Service

Midfield Fire Department in the early 1980’s was my first affiliation with firefighters as “one of them”. I was a 15 year old kid whose mother dropped him off on Tuesday nights, “Drill Nights”.

Midfield Fire Department, the first place where I was actually a firefighter

The full time guys, I looked up to them. I’m sure they are all long retired firefighters now. Vietnam veterans and guys who had been around the block a bunch of times and stopped in places that I couldn’t even imagine existed as of yet. The dayroom filled with the smoke of Winstons and Marlboro Reds. That black cast iron pot which sat on the stove filled with Crisco was always there. Always. And, I think it’s safe to assume some sort of animal flesh was boiled in that oil the majority of shifts. Salty language and busting chops. Yeah, I admired those guys. I still do. They were a lot of what I aspired to be at that age.

Physical Fitness? I know they shot pool and I think there was a basketball goal in the back parking lot. There may have been a bench and some free weights in the bay. I can’t say for sure. I remember the sound the doors on Rescue 46 made when being closed. I remember the echo of the telephone ringing in that open bay. And I remember the sounds of Billy Vaughn or Paul Hak, or Bubba Prantl, or Jimmy Keys carrying on about whatever…

I don’t remember the sound of clanging cast iron though.

So that’s our baseline, our starting point. Baby Boomers, tough as nails but, as far as I know, lacking any real concept of organized, goal oriented physical fitness. They, unfortunately, paid a price for it. They didn’t know any better, just as I’m sure we’ll figure some things out after we pay a price for ignorance on the subject too. That generation of firefighters had a lot of heart attacks and strokes, as we know too well.

But the lights were about to come on.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie Pumping Iron came out in January of 1977 and the country was about to start focusing more on fitness. It was a start. In the early 80’s everybody wanted to be Rocky or Apollo Creed, or Mister Tee and body building magazines and programs were coming out of the walls.

Yo Rock, we wanted be you!
Photo Credit: Pikakoko

Firehouse fitness in its infancy. We realized that we needed strength and we needed aerobic conditioning. By now I was working as a paid firefighter at North Shelby Fire District south of Birmingham. And so, every afternoon we’d take it to the bay, behind Truck 71, and lift. We did the same things about every shift. You know; bench press, some curls maybe, triceps. Some of the guys ran, I did a little too, but it was off duty generally and I hated it. I still hate running.

80’s shorts and a rocking Mullet! Behind NSFD T-71

And why in the afternoons, in a stifling hot Alabama engine bay? Why? Because physical fitness was still considered, by most chiefs, as recreational. Remember, it was still the Baby Boomers with all the bugles at this point. But, what I call, “Body Builder” styled workouts never optimally prepared us for the fireground. Better than shooting pool and smoking those Marlboros? Absolutely, but not optimal.

Around 1986 or 1987 I attended the second Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus Specialist class at the Alabama Fire College. I was introduced to Consumption Drills there and I would value them until I retired from Cobb County.

Between North Shelby and Cobb though there was a second stint with Guntersville Fire for me. By now the fire service was seeing the value in “specificity”, training specifically for the fire ground. We still lifted weights and we still ran but we were regularly doing consumption drills.

I had an old pair of XXXL coveralls that I filled with sawdust from the mill. Then one of the dry-cleaning ladies in town sewed them up for us, home-made Bill Tough. We carried him up the bunkroom stairs. We climbed an old aircraft ladder, we chopped on a crosstie since the concept of sledge hammering a tire hadn’t been born yet.

Consumption drills with “The Brethren” in Guntersville.

Personally I consumption drilled because I enjoyed it and I enjoyed the challenge of making those old steel bottled SCBAs last the entire 20 minutes they were rated for while working. Subconsciously though I think I still believed that lifting weights and doing some cardio made good physical firefighters. I was wrong, and today, I know I was wrong. It has been confirmed to me on several occasions during our department’s pre-hire physical ability tests.

Cobb County Fire’s pre-hire physical ability test is similar to many department’s test I’m sure. It’s a task oriented test which the candidate performs in an SCBA without the mask, gloves and helmet. Four of the first five stations tax the lower body pretty well; 2 ½” hose stretch, a couple of times up the tower stairs, dummy drag, etc.

Society wants plenty of no judgment zones these days but, admit it or not, that doesn’t exist on the training ground for pre-hires. They are sizing each other up and the training staff is sizing the candidates up too. Any training officer who cares about their department is anyway.
Of course, many of the candidates are into fitness and they show up looking like they could oil up and pose down for us all after the test. Some of these folks are really jacked. Naturally, most of us assume they will do well on the test but we get surprised. More than a few come down those tower steps after going up and down them twice and head for the next station, the dummy drag, with their hands on their head or hips trying to catch their breathe.

Impressive but those muscles burn a lot of O2.
Photo Credit: Stephane Seco

I used to tell my guys “It’s nice to have big muscles but your heart and lungs have got to keep those muscles stoked with oxygen.”
If bodybuilding and power lifting without metabolic conditioning are one extreme then endurance athletes are the other. I admire them. I applaud them. And I fully admit that there is no way I could ever swim that distance, and then bike what they want me to, and then run a marathon. Iron Man? I totally agree. But if the argument is whether or not endurance athletes make the best prototype, physically, for a firefighter I’d have to say…no.

Endurance athletes have incredible tenacity.
PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Hunkeler

The same fitness philosophy followed us around until the late 1990’s or early 2000’s. I actually remember thinking during these years that there needed to be something more. I remember thinking that firefighters needed some combination of power, like from Olympic lifting, the metabolic conditioning the consumption drills provided, and the aerobic conditioning of the running all rolled up into a package specifically created for the fire service. Those thoughts never translated into anything concrete from me but they finally did.

Fortunately, for the fire service and the public, somebody did put it all together and they called it “high intensity functional fitness”. And that’s what the optimally fit 21st Century firefighter’s fitness program looks like. It’s a combination of high intensity intervals, hopefully incorporating functional movements. There is a component of flexibility. There is some cardio and there is some strength training.

Marietta Fire incorporates Functional movements into their fitness testing.
Photo Credit Marietta FD Pub. Ed. Office

It would seem that firefighter fitness has hit its zenith with this sort of training and maybe it has. Maybe we’ve finally figured out how to build the best firefighters physically. Does that mean we can’t improve? Absolutely not!

So where do we go from here?

They call us “tactical athletes” now. That’s the new catch phrase and, make no mistake, firefighters are just that, athletes. If that be the case then let me do a little comparison here to illustrate one of the ways we can improve on firefighter fitness.

High school football is big here in the south. Many high schools have dedicated strength and conditioning coaches. Fitness….its ALL they do even at the high school level. And the schools which don’t have coaches dedicated to conditioning certainly have an official conditioning program of some sort.

Colleges? We know full well that every college has a dedicated strength and conditioning coach. If they don’t, can you guess what happens on Saturday, every Saturday? That’s right, they have their “you know what” handed to them.

Well, are firefighters athletes or not?
Photo Credit: Army Recruiting

Generally high school and college kids don’t die from cardiac events. It happens but, when it does it’s big and tragic news. Firefighters, on the other hand, die from cardiac events regularly. So often that it isn’t a big story on the news. Why don’t we have dedicated health, conditioning, and fitness coaches?

What if we start there? Departments invest a lot of money on preventative maintenance for fire apparatus and facilities but not so much for, what every chief will call the department’s most valuable asset; the personnel.

Ultimately a dedicated conditioning coach at every department would be optimal since every firefighter is different physiologically. But what if we could simply start with a prescribed fitness program, one that meets the firefighter where they are at the present time physically, and helps them improve?

We’ve come a long way. We really have. God bless those Vietnam vets who would have laughed us out of the station, in all likelihood, at the mention of going into the bay to do burpees and wall balls. Laughed? The ones I knew might have chased me out. And God bless whoever it was that organized some high intensity functional circuits and consumption drills and strength training. No telling how many lives, firefighter and civilian, they saved.

Those chiefs in the mid 1980’s? They would have looked at you like you had three heads if you suggested workouts as a part of daily training. Remember, their perspective was that workouts are recreational. But now everyone sees the value and necessity of them.
In most departments today the chief will give you the same look at the suggestion of a dedicated, organized, mandatory, and specific fitness program. And mention hiring a dedicated strength and conditioning coach and see where that goes. We’re back to being laughed or run out of the station.

But those guys in 1970 never would have never dreamed of the things we’re doing from a fitness standpoint in the fire service today so I’ll keep dreaming and see where we’re at in a few years too.

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