As firefighters, we face many instances throughout our careers that would make many outside of our field tremble. Whether it’s running into a burning building, diving into the ice, or hanging off of a rope, we do things that others would never dream of doing. Yet we do it without a second thought. We are fearless. That is until it comes to the fitness needed to condition our bodies so we are ready for the next death-defying act in the circus of which is our world.
It seems more and more firefighters are getting continuously afraid of the basic act of physical fitness. Many proudly claim the position of “tactical athlete”, yet play the role of “tactical recliner” every afternoon while they could be spending that time bettering themselves.
So the question here is why? Why are the men and women who face death on an almost daily basis so afraid of 45 minutes of sweaty activity? The answer is quite simple; policy and mentality.
It has been a long-going, and long misunderstood, battle with fitness policies in fire departments. Other than the fact that they differ agency by agency, rumor is passed down generation by generation, firefighter by firefighter, or group by group, and word is believed rather than black and white. Some departments may not even have a policy, but that won’t stop those too lazy to dream up a reason as to why they are 350 and suck through a bottle in five minutes.
To make it even more confusing and to add to the fear some may have, laws also vary state by state on injury coverage. Frustrated yet?
Every well-educated firefighter and fire department takes every step to avoid being contaminated to carcinogens during and after fires. For good reason, too, as we are much more at-risk of being diagnosed with cancer than the general U.S. population. We do everything from wearing new more expensive gear, on-scene decon, bagging our gear, and more, to make sure we don’t get that damned cancer.
But why are so many fire departments and firefighters avoiding the fact that the number one killer of firefighters, and the number one solution to this problem, is ourselves? Because it requires effort. It requires sweat, pain, and dedication. You can’t go through the newest equipment magazine and buy a stronger core, more endurance or more flexibility. Fitness isn’t automatic. And because it requires time, commitment, and effort, those who are too ignorant or too lazy toss it to the wayside until it is too late.
Your departments have (or at least should have) policies on cancer prevention, decon at scenes, gear washing, and mental health. But when he time comes to write the policy on fitness, the question always comes to coverage, and if the injury is truly “job related” or not. This requires in-depth research into the extremely confusing nomenclature of state law, and sometimes classes, which are unfortunately sometimes taught by some who don’t understand the full concept either.
The truth is that both sides, the firefighter and the department, need to accept responsibility for physical fitness. Should the agency cover you should you get tear a bicep? Absolutely. Should the firefighter work within their known limits and not push themselves to lift too much weight with improper form? You betcha. Who supplies the equipment? The agency (hopefully). Who accepts the risks while using the equipment? The firefighter.
A firefighter can’t expect to go from 0-100 at three in the morning, tossing ladders, pulling hand lines and overhauling while being out of shape. A department can’t expect an out of shape firefighter to perform these acts. But the fear of coverage in case of injury working out is leading to increasingly more injuries on scene because more and more firefighters are less fit to handle these situations. Now because Johnny didn’t want to spend 15 minutes tossing around a medicine ball and sandbag, he threw out his back moving a couch. Now he’s out for five months not working out, and will soon go back to work not fit for duty, and won’t work out because he’s afraid to get hurt, and the cycle continues.
We need to take personal responsibility for our fitness levels. No, you don’t have to be the next CrossFit all-star, but you should be able to perform normal fireground operations without being down for the count after ten minutes. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to the men, women and children you are sworn to protect. Firefighting is more than just a job. It isn’t a hobby. It isn’t a game. It is a lifestyle. To make it a good lifestyle with good quality of life afterwards, you need to treat yourself right. No matter what the rules or policies may be.