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The Path to Becoming a Fit Responder

What happens when an entire profession has physical testing standards that are off base? What happens when we breed a culture of test takers with no application skills? What happens when an entire system is designed to only react to problems, not intervene before they begin? What if our fitness knowledge has been based on misinformation?

In public safety, we have been led down a path that has inadvertently been designed to hurt us. The very nature of our job places us in positions that are known to cause both postural trauma and repetitive strain injury, and we’re evaluated with strength and fitness tests that have never really been validated. Yet we spend hours upon hours training for a test that …tests what exactly?

Public safety is a dynamic profession in that it dictates requirements for physical attributes: postural endurance, strength, balance, flexibility, cardiovascular endurance and overall stability. Public safety professionals must pass tests to prove they possess these qualities.

But the issue I have noticed is that the so-called “fitness experts” are sending the wrong message by simply emphasizing the importance of passing the test. What about injury prevention? Why are we not assessing the parts of the body that are known to lead to injury through muscle imbalances? Is there a correlation between what is commonly accepted as “safe exercise” and the high incidence of injury?

For example, let’s take a look at the standard crunch, a popular exercise. Do you run calls lying on your back? There is rarely any circumstance in public safety where you would be required to lift your torso without your legs or hips. Research has shown the crunching motion places extreme stress on the disks of the lower back. Crunches will also reinforce faulty posture that can come from sitting for long periods, which can lead to lumbar and knee injury patterns. This is just one example of a supposed beneficial exercise that actually causes injury.

In my career, I have seen way too many friends and peers quit or retire from an injury that should have never happened. I am often appalled upon entering a station’s exercise room by the lack of equipment necessary to help decrease injury (in fact, these rooms are often filled with equipment that will actually cause one).

Times have changed. As technology has allowed us to be more diagnostic with patient care, fire suppression/prevention and criminal investigation, it has also helped us exercise better. There are movements that I learned in my sports medicine classes that have been proven to be less effective than we thought, or even dangerous. I am amazed at the range of dangerous and ineffective exercises that are still being taught and performed.

For instance, behind-the-head exercises — where weights would be pushed or pulled behind the head to work the shoulder and back muscles — used to be taught all the time. However, with research and testing, these exercises were found to place severe strain on the shoulder’s joint capsule, leading to a higher incidence of injury in sports and on the job.

We, as a profession, must learn to incorporate strategies that will allow us to remain healthy, fit and strong, while correcting muscular and postural imbalances that can lead to injury. The injury rate is way too high. The greater the imbalance in the body, the easier it is to get hurt. It’s actually quite easy to screen for these patterns and to perform exercises to correct them. However, a vast majority of programs don’t incorporate functional and corrective exercise.

The misinformation within public safety fitness and exercise in general is scary. One of my main goals is to educate you and help correct your fitness habits. With your feedback and help, we will be able to slowly implement change through education and understanding. Together we can undo the physical traumas that our profession causes while significantly reducing the risk of injury. We should no longer sit and watch our friends and co-workers destroy their bodies. There is a reason why so few of us reach retirement.

Fitness and wellness need to become the standard, not an afterthought. As injury rates decrease and fitness levels increase, our departments will actually begin to save money, which in turn may result in better training and equipment for crews. Does public safety, as a profession, need to set exact standards? And how will these standards affect employees who are unfit or who at high risk of injury while on the job?

The challenge ahead is to take an introspective look at what we are currently doing and realize that it can be done better, with less money, while implementing positive change and wellness. And the beginnings of change must start within us. We must change how we view fitness and fitness testing in our professions.

Bryan Fass, ATC, LAT, CSCS, EMT-P (ret.), has dedicated over a decade to changing the culture of EMS from one of pain, injury, and disease to one of ergonomic excellence and provider wellness. He has leveraged his 15-year career in sports medicine, athletic training, spine rehabilitation, strength and conditioning and as a paramedic to become an expert on prehospital patient handling/equipment handling and fire-EMS fitness. His company, Fit Responder, works nationally with departments to reduce injuries and improve fitness for first responders. Contact Bryan at

Mayor Donna Holaday presented the city’s desire to operate its own ambulance service staffed by firefighters already trained as EMTs