What I Learned From Fire Academy PT Instruction

If you are an instructor at a fire academy, and even more so if you are a PT instructor for a fire academy, this article is aimed directly at you. If you are in charge of a fire academy, my hopes are this article grabs your attention and makes you think. If you are in the process of getting hired at a fire department, I pray that this helps prepare you. If you are a chief of a department, I hope this article gets the gears turning.

There are many things that can be guaranteed in daily life at a fire academy. One of the most important being the physical training, or “PT” sessions. These sessions are not only what make or break a recruit during the academy process, but they are the vital point in the beginnings of a career where the recruit makes a mental determination on whether they will continue a fit lifestyle after academy graduation, or if they will return to a mostly sedentary lifestyle. As we all know, pursuing the ladder only leads to said firefighter becoming a statistic of injury or worse.

A fit and healthy lifestyle and mindset aren’t made overnight. I have seen this first hand at the fire academy I instruct PT at. You will always have your PT studs, and you will always have the recruits that lived life one bag of Doritos at a time. The fact that you have these recruit firefighters for months is your opportunity to make them a brand new person. Every military basic training program/boot camp has worked this way for a very long time. A fire academy is no different. These recruits are disciplined sponges who are afraid of failure and are yearning to soak up everything the instructors bark at them. How it is delivered is the determining factor on how the recruit perceives it.

A recruit can arrive prepared or unprepared. This is both his/her fault, but also the hiring agency. If you instruct at an academy where multiple municipalities send their recruits, this will be the unfortunate usual. Many departments are run by the “old timers” who have put fitness on the back-burner, or worse, don’t care about fitness and health at all. This will reflect on the recruit and you will notice it immediately. If the chiefs/captains running a department care about health and fitness, this will show due to the recruit either getting a workout plan from the agency or them being mandated to workout prior to.

If you instruct at or are in charge of an academy that is dedicated to a single city or county, it is your responsibility to run it up the chain to get information out about exercises or information to help physically prepare the new hires.

I don’t want to give the impression that it is the hiring department’s responsibility alone. This falls mostly on the recruit. But there is a reasoning behind this. It seems that as time goes on, the people pursuing the career of a firefighter and ultimately being hired, are largely out of shape or need a lot of work. It’s as if people that want the job have forgotten or not realized that this is one of the most physically and mentally demanding jobs in the world, and to have a long and healthy career you MUST be prepared. The mindset of the Millenial and Gen Z generation is that of instant gratitude and justification, and that is who is now in the hiring age bracket. Very few want to work hard for something, and when faced with a challenge, would rather quit than figure out a way through it. They need instruction every step of the way. Unfortunately, many of these have leaked through into the hiring process of fire departments. Not all are like this, but it is evident who is and who isn’t. SO, if given instruction by the agency that hires the new firefighter, or if mandated, they will more than likely follow the instruction if it means they will have an easier time while going through the academy.

Developing your PT program is the hardest easy task you’ll be faced with. You know it should be functional, and you know it should be challenging. But you are faced with an exact time limit, and don’t know all the recruits capabilities. You may also be faced with the challenge of the “salty old man” instructor that liked it how it was when he went through in ‘76. This leads to academy drama and small issues no significant person wants to be bothered with. So how do you do it? How do you develop a functional PT program for a fire academy?

Surround yourself with a talented, knowledgeable, well-versed team. Not only is it difficult to design a multi-month day-by-day PT program by yourself, but it is extremely difficult to run the workout while checking proper form and movement when you’re alone. Once you have this team assembled (hopefully with certified personal trainers), the rest will be very easy if you follow these steps;

1- Stretch and warmup well. The leading cause of injury during a workout is being ill-prepared to perform the workout. Having an in-depth and appropriate warm-up and stretch prior to the workout will eliminate this. The stretches should be static and dynamic. The static stretches should last 30 seconds to 45 seconds, and should follow an in-place cardio warm-up. I personally like to alternate between high-knees, tail-kickers and sprint in place.

2- Keep it functional. Calisthenics are great. They have their place and are common in my programs as well. But they don’t help a firefighter succeed unless paired with other movements or performed at high intensity. Order some sandbags and make the workouts high intensity with exact work-to-rest ratios. With the knowledge of your team and outside sources, putting together these workouts should be easy and quite fun. They’re almost limitless. A large problem I’ve found with the previous program at the academy where I instruct PT was none of the workouts were functional or even firefighter specific. This lead to the firefighters becoming static once graduating and losing any progress they had made. You want the opposite. You want the recruit to get to station and have a memory full of movements and exercises where they can do their own and continue the fit lifestyle until retirement.

3- Incorporate teamwork. Unless these firefighters are working for a department that has one-man apparatus, they will all be part of  a team. Whether it is a four man team on an engine or a six man team on a truck, they need to have the team mindset upon leaving the academy. Where this starts is PT.

4- Don’t be a jerk. I’m not saying to coddle them and become their best friend, but there’s zero need to scream at firefighter recruits and insult them as if they were going through BUD/S in the 90’s. They took the test to be a firefighter because they wanted to be a firefighter. If they wanted to be berated and insulted for no reason they would have gone a different route. It doesn’t happen on the job, so why should it happen during PT. A chewing out is necessary at times, especially if failing to complete an exercise or quitting. But make it minimal and don’t point out one individual. Make it class-centric. It doesn’t take much to figure out that if someone has a pleasurable experience with PT, they will look forward to it and thus put in more effort and get a better workout, and will continue to do so throughout the rest of the day. A positive mindset works wonders.

In conclusion, having the ability to run a fitness program at a fire academy is an honor that should not be taken lightly. It is something that you can use to literally shape the future of many of the recruits’ lives. Fitness and health, combined with proper training, is what can prevent injury and death. Do not let any of your recruits become one of the 60,000+ strain or sprain injuries. Don’t let them pursue a sedentary lifestyle after they graduate and become one of the medical related LODD’s. The knowledge and science is here to support the benefits of a functional workout program for firefighters. Take the lead and help make the firefighters of the future the most physically capable to ever walk the streets.

Ian Palmer is a career fireman, MFI and SFI with the Ridge Culver Fire District in Rochester, NY. He is the lead PT Instructor at the New York State Fire Academy, and the owner of Thin Line Fitness. For more information go to www.thinlinefit.com

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