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Motivating Firefighters to Maintain Physical Fitness

Start a fire science degree at American Military University.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on EDM Digest.

By Dr. Randall HanifenFaculty Member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University 

It is no secret that firefighting is a very strenuous job. It is also no secret that many volunteer or paid firefighters are in poor levels of fitness.

While we have noted some improvement over the past decades in attention to health and safety, how much change have we noted? We typically see new fire department hires who are in shape and able to pass a physical capabilities test. But by five years later, they are barely able to get out of the fire engine.

Recently, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released their annual firefighter death report, which showed only 64 line-of-duty deaths, in keeping with a trend of under 70 deaths per year.

While the low number of on-duty deaths is commendable, the highest percentage (40%) of those deaths came from cardiac-related events. Much work has been done to prevent this type of firefighter death, but more effort can be made in fire departments.

Fire Service Standards, Initiatives and Training Enhancements

Within the fire service, safety standards such as NFPA 1500 have been developed by great leaders and others in the fire service at all ranks. There are also fitness standards, such as NFPA 1583, and a medical standard in NFPA 1582. In addition, there are joint labor and management initiatives in the International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs Wellness-Fitness Initiative.

Also, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) has created Life Safety Initiatives that nearly every fire academy in the country has incorporated into their curriculum.

In addition, the National Fire Academy overhauled nearly every course they offer to include a safety and wellness section. As a result, we firefighters could not be more inundated with wellness and safety information in our educational journey.

Staying in Shape Requires a Healthy Lifestyle throughout a Firefighter’s Career

Once of the issues with physical fitness in the fire service is that it is not every third-day initiative that you can only utilize while at work. It is a lifestyle.

Many of us start out in the profession in our early 20s. Often, we are single with no kids and few responsibilities, other than showing up to work every third day. We have all the time in the day to work out. We have not developed poor eating habits and if we have, our metabolism compensates for the lack of proper nutrition.

Fast-forward five to 10 years. By then, we often have a spouse and children. Sometimes, we take on part-time work to compensate for all of the added expenses that come with a spouse and children. Next thing we know, we have gained 20 pounds and only pay for a gym membership rather than actually using the gym.

[Related: How Yoga Training Combines Wellness and Physical Fitness for Firefighters]

By this point, our metabolism is not helping us. Doing the job of firefighting has become markedly harder to recover from, and we need a day or two to recover from a fire.

Leadership Involves Setting the Example for Physical Fitness

While it is great that health, safety and wellness enhancements are in our curriculum, a look around the room in leadership classes often show many fire service leaders who are not an example of fitness or safety. While there are many reasons for executives to become physically unfit, they all boil down to a lack of priority for fitness.

Physical fitness can be attained by anyone. I have a friend that is in a wheelchair due to an accident, and he maintains a fitness level to have adventures with his son. He prioritizes his family and does what it takes.

[Related: Add Stretching to Your Workout to Improve Physical Fitness]

Some executives state that they are no longer on the front lines and do not need the same level of physical fitness as other firefighters. While I would agree that using a computer mouse at a desk rather than stretching hose takes two different fitness levels, people look to leaders who push initiatives to see if they also “walk the walk.”

Similarly, would you use a financial advisor that does not invest in what they suggest for you? Would you buy a Chevy from a person that drives a Ford? Probably not. Never ask others to do what you cannot do.

Fire Department Cultures Have Different Values

Each fire department has its own culture by which the members must abide. This culture is created through established policies and the accepted values of the majority of fire department members.

Some cultures are fire-centric. Some value emergency management services, and a few value fitness. If the organization values fitness, then the internal culture often values physical fitness as well. The culture is commonly driven by expectations.

Fire Service Leaders Will Need to Develop a Culture that Emphasizes Functional Physical Fitness

As a department’s members age, however, the internal culture will likely reduce its commitment to physical fitness. This area is where fire service leaders must “walk the walk” and lead the organization to maintain and increase a commitment to fitness.

[Related: Training Mental Resilience Is More Important Than Hose Drills]

Creating this change is a delicate balance, as there are many methods to become fit. Some fire service departments may prefer triathlons, and others may prefer powerlifting.

The fire service will need a balance of cardiac fitness and physical strength. For instance, a powerlifter can pick up a firefighter in distress by the air pack, tuck him under his arm and carry him out of a burning building, but that same powerlifter will be out of air in his or her air tank within minutes.

The triathlete will have much longer to utilize the limited amount of air in a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). However, he or she will lack the strength to drag a person who may be just above ideal weight away from a fire.

Neither of these scenarios are ideal. We must focus on functional fitness to meet the heavy physical demands of firefighting.

[Related: Resources to Help Fire Departments Improve Their Health and Safety Programs]

The bottom line is what a fire service organization and its members tolerate will become the norm in the fire department. If the leadership of an organization is not willing to commit to physical fitness, the rank and file won’t either.

As firefighters, we are in control of the physical fitness level of our organization. Get out to the gym and be sure that you are a model of what you want your organization to become, then hold others accountable.

physical fitnessAbout the Author: Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a Shift Captain for the West Chester Fire Department in Ohio and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the Executive Chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a Taskforce Leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the Vice-Chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a Fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. To contact the author, send an email to For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

Dr. Randall Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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