Physical Fitness Standards To Save Lives: Ours And Theirs

Physical Fitness Standards To Save Lives: Ours And Theirs


            Cardiac events are a leading cause of line of duty deaths among firefighters. The NFPA reports that in 2016 the leading cause of fire scene deaths for firefighters was sudden cardiac arrest at 38% of the total of firefighter fatalities (Firefighter Deaths, n.d.). While the cardiac impact that firefighting has on the heart does include aspects that we cannot change such as the impact of heat on the human body, there are variables that we are able to change such as the overall health and fitness of the individual firefighter. When we train our bodies like that of an athlete, we are able to increase the ability of our bodies to handle the stresses of the job with much less negative impact at times of high exertion tasks.

            Lets look at another aspect of physical fitness in the fire service. Every morning that you wake up and put on your uniform to head to work, you are signing a contract with the community you serve. You are swearing to them that you are able to mentally and physically do your job without any reservations at a moments notice. When a firefighter shows up to the scene of a fire, no matter the size of the fire or the time of day, that firefighter needs to be able to accomplish any task that is assigned to them. If the firefighter is tasked with performing a V.E.I.S. and is unable to complete the search of the room because they are exhausted from the ventilation portion of the task, they have failed the task. Worse yet, picture the firefighter that ladders the window, enters the room, searches the room and finds a victim but is unable to remove the victim in a rapid manner due to lack of strength. This is a perfect definition of negligence, we have a duty to act and there is a direct breach of that duty if we are not physically prepared to do our jobs.

            So how do we attempt to change this potential breach of our duty to act and violation of our sacred contract to serve our citizens? Many of our departments have already begun to utilize CPAT or candidate physical abilities test for purposes of utilizing a set standard when hiring new firefighters. These CPAT tests allow a department to create a cut score based on time and penalties and allow each candidate to be ranked based on speed and accuracy of completing physical tasks such as stair climbs, pulling hose lines, dragging victims, and performing simulated overhaul. The CPAT is a great start and sets the pace for the fire candidate to get in shape as well as, hopefully, remain to stay in shape throughout his or her career.

            But how do we incorporate this standard throughout the ranks and throughout our organization? A brief look at any fire station in any organization will reveal a general consensus that we do not adapt to change very well. If an organization immediately creates a physical fitness standard that is tied to whether or not firefighters can remain on duty is going to create mass hysteria and will no doubt lead to a quick meeting with union leadership or worse lawyers. Implementing a physical fitness standard is a delicate process that should be undertaken slowly. There are two stakeholders that must be convinced of the need for such a program in order to achieve success.

            The first stakeholder’s support that is needed is that of the Fire Chief. Implementing a fitness program of any kind can be costly, using the program to create a standard that is assessed requires even more cost allowing each member of the organization to be successful. The IAFF Wfi program details the cost justification of a fitness program in ways of reduced lost time and sick leave use, reduced workers compensation claims, and reduction of overtime needed to fill these positions (Cost Justification, n.d.). Additionally, many of the initial start up costs of items such as equipment and the use of personal trainers can be offset by grants.

            The second and most important stakeholder for success of the program is the rank and file. If you tell a firefighter that they will be tested on any aspect of their job that may lead to firing, they will strongly oppose it regardless of its potential benefits. This is the absolute wrong way to implement a physical fitness standard. If you apply an incentive to obtaining the standard there will be much more acceptance. Incentives are the better approach to gaining acceptance of the program.

            Now that we have the buy-in from our stakeholders, how do we begin to the implement the program?

            Step 1) Create a committee. I am a firm believer that multiple brains are better than a single one. There is no need to take on a project of this magnitude alone. Additionally, utilizing multiple members of the department allows for a better overall buy-in from the field. I suggest taking members from various fitness backgrounds to help create the program (crossfit, running, weight lifters, etc.). This allows a well-balanced program that does not place too heavy of an emphasis on any one fitness training methodology.

            Step 2) Research, research, research. The research phase of any program is key to the success of the program. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Utilizing other departments fitness programs as well as taking the advice of professional strength and conditioning coaches can establish a base of how your organizations program will work. This step can also allow for more cost effective purchases of equipment based on durability and likelihood of use.

            Step 3) Set goals. Every program whether it is a community paramedic, apparatus staffing, station placement or even our fitness program should have short term and long-term goals. Additionally, these goals must have a measurable aspect to them in order to provide empirical data of how successful the program is. The short-term goal of the program should be to have majority compliance to the program within the first year, 60% of the organization. Year two should increase to 80-90% and year three should be complete compliance at 100%. Also utilizing cost saving goals is another way to achieve better acceptance of the program from senior staff. Measure the amount of sick leave use and workers compensation costs in your specific organization to be able to track savings from implementation all the way to complete compliance.

            Step 4) Plan. The beginning of the program should be completely voluntary utilizing trained coaches to come to the stations and teach proper exercise technique, healthy dieting changes, and fitness training program creation. This can be accomplished by hiring a third party trainer or taking volunteers from the department and paying to have them certified for a physical fitness training organization. Another way to help influence buy-in from the field is through the use of competitive athletic teams in the organization (softball, basketball, combat challenge, weightlifting, etc.). This makes it fun for the members and can create friendly competition between stations.

Start them when they are young to set the standard throughout the organization. During the recruit academy dedicate trainers to teach all the recruits the same proper techniques and programs and have them utilize these programs during the PT portion of the academy. These habits will continue on to shift life.

            A procedure for assessing members should occur at the same time that the program progresses. For example, at the end of year one of the program have the entire department complete a physical fitness assessment similar to that of the CPAT that candidates complete. Ensure that there are no penalties for poor performance and that it is simply an assessment. This will provide a base of how the department is performing. Some members only need to be reminded of their physical performance to alter their attitude toward fitness training.

After the second year of the program perform the same assessment again but tie an incentive to the assessment. Whether that incentive is in way of financial compensation or the station with the best average results receives a dinner made by the fire chief. The incentive will help to motivate individuals that are on the fence about the program to join in.

The third year when complete compliance is desired, make the assessment a mandatory stipulation for remaining on shift. IMPORTANT: Do not make the standard one that is exclusionary and meant to force members into retirement, this is not fair to them or the department that has spent thousands of dollars training them. Instead this is the final push to motivate individuals that are still resistant to becoming healthier to join in the program. The standard should be based on industry standards again such as those utilized by the CPAT assessment. Remember to announce the standard at the end of year two so that individuals have a full year to get into shape to be able to complete the assessment successfully. The use of coaches should be utilized throughout the entire program. If an individual is unable to perform to the standard successfully they should be removed from shift and placed on light duty allowing the firefighter to train with one of the coaches multiple times per week and retesting after a specified amount of time and then re-tested.

            Step 5) Review the data. At quarterly meetings review that data with the committee. How many individuals requested assistance from the coaches? How many hours of sick leave were utilized during the quarter? Where additional injuries noted directly related to fitness training? What exercises are being performed more than others? What equipment is being utilized more than others? Are the results of the program translating to better performance of on the job tasks in training and on the fire ground? These are all topics of discussion that allow members to see how the program is progressing and allow the utilization of the final step in the process.

            Step 6) Re-evaluate and adjust. Through the quarterly committee meetings, members should evaluate the effectiveness of the program. If injuries are occurring during the fitness training, are they from a certain exercise or activity? If so, can we send coaches out to focus on proper form or stretching protocols to reduce injury and increase effectiveness of the exercise? Remember adjustment of the program may be needed in order to achieve the overall goal of complete compliance of the program and successful completion of a physical fitness assessment to ensure a standard is achieved.


            Creating and implementing a physical fitness standard in your organization does not have to be a scary process that creates lawsuits and division between field and management. The use of the standard is meant to create healthier firefighters that are able to survive an entire career without negative health effects as well as provide stronger more capable firefighters at the scene of emergencies to better serve our citizens. We as firefighters go out of our way to attend seminars, classes, and conventions on a regular basis to be able to learn how to be more efficient at our jobs. Pursuing higher-level physical fitness abilities should be looked at with the same motivation. A high performance firefighter is a combination of intelligence and physical fitness; it cannot be achieved without both attributes.



           -Lieutenant Michael DeStefano











Cost Justification. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2018, from


Firefighter deaths by cause and nature of injury. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2018, from

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