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How to implement a fire-EMS fitness program

5 keys to jump-starting a fitness program that will serve members “from hire to retire”

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Modern and appropriate equipment for the station should include cardiovascular machines, functional training equipment (racks, bumper plates, bars, hex bars) kettlebells, dumbbells and the assorted exercise straps and bands necessary for firefighter fitness.

Photo/Bryan Fass

There is a lot of noise in the firefighting world right now. Firefighter fitness, functional fitness, tactical fitness, fit for duty – the list is endless. But what is right and what is wrong? What is science fact vs. science fiction? What is really going to keep you alive on the fireground and after the call? We all know that firefighting is a job that can kill you, so it would only make sense that all departments have fitness programs with 100% compliance to prevent line-of-duty deaths (LODD), right?

This is where we find the disconnect in the industry. Some departments have structured fitness and wellness programs, and others have nothing. For the past 15 years, I have had the privilege of traveling the country to train fire and EMS departments. From patient-handling to fitness to physical abilities testing, I have covered a lot of ground, and it’s afforded me a unique perspective of seeing the good, the bad and the ugly of fire-rescue fitness.

1. Culture: A fitness-focus starts at the top

As the saying goes, “it starts at the top,” and in the case of a successful fitness program, this is true. But this isn’t just the chief; successful programs have shared their vision and goals with risk management, human resources and even the city manager. Firefighter health and wellness needs to be clearly explained to the concerned parties, so if you need funding for equipment or training, the “why” is clearly understood.

This buy-in at the top is especially important if and when training injuries occur, as I would rather have a training-based “minor injury” than a catastrophic injury on scene. Of course, exercise should never cause injury, but we have to cover all our bases.

Once we have the administrative buy-in, the next top-down plan is to build fitness and wellness into your standard operating procedures (SOPs) and follow them. As bugles come and go, so do priorities, but surviving the job is always a top priority.

Your culture is also established the moment the probie walks in the door. If they walk into a lazy and fractured fitness/wellness culture, then nothing will work. If they walk into a department that is invested in their health and wellness from the start, then that probie will become a brand ambassador for the next group.

This culture falls heavily on the established company officers, and this is where the push often fails. If one crew is fit and invested while the next crew is invested in the recliner, then you have a leadership issue. This is why buy-in from the top is so critical. Someone with rank needs to remind these folks that safety also involves being fit for duty and following a department-wide SOP on fitness.

2. Setup: Evaluate equipment and budget

Once you have leadership on board, it’s time to formulate your fitness and wellness plan. I recommend first looking at the equipment and cost.

Equipment: Do you have modern and appropriate equipment at every station? This should include cardiovascular machines, functional training equipment (racks, bumper plates, bars, hex bars) kettlebells, dumbbells and the assorted exercise straps and bands necessary for firefighter fitness.

If space is limited, don’t worry, you can get a few suspension trainers and hang them from the roof, wall or even the truck. Frankly all you need is some bands, kettlebells, floor mats and dumbbells, and you have a gym.

Cost: A limiting factor is often the cost of outfitting the stations. Look at grants, capital expense plans, budgeting and even working with the city. Many local health clubs will offer discounts for on-duty crews to come and train if that is a more viable option. As I tell a lot of the departments I train, a suspension trainer, a few bands and some kettlebells will only cost around $500. Even that old broken treadmill is still a great tool –use it like a sled and push the belt.

3. Priority: Fitness shouldn’t be a “maybe today”

Time of day is a big issue when starting or re-vamping a fitness program. When is the best time to train? Physiologically, it’s somewhere between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. As far as call volume, look at your historical data and determine when the best time is. You can always change it later.

I have even seen stations stand down for 45 minutes for PT time and others follow my preferred mantra of “check off the truck, then check off your body,” getting it done in the morning right after station duties.

The bottom line with fitness is that it should never be an afterthought or a “maybe today”; it must be a priority. In today’s busy shift structure and with all the other training, I still see fitness fall by the wayside as other tasks are deemed more pressing.

Working out vs. training: This is one of the biggest issues I see in all aspects of fitness, not just in the fire service. Currently, you can jump online and find hundreds of “WODs” (aka workout of the day). They have become very popular, but they also have two big pitfalls: 1) working out is myopic and is devoid of a long-term goal; and 2) often the WOD is not the right choice of exercises, intensity or focus for you your crew. Plus, almost everyone is at a different place physically and physiologically. I prefer to see training programs that cover mobility, rehab and job-specific strength versus a workout pulled from a hat.

4. Test and measure: Getting everyone on board

No program will ever be successful if you cannot measure the success of your program. This needs to encompass everything from your annual medical physical, cardiovascular fitness, mobility screen and annual physical abilities test. Having all these measurement tools in place accomplishes some other goals as well. It tells you how well your exercise programming is working, it gives you an idea on overall departmental fitness/wellness, and it keeps the “why” clearly in focus.

How you choose to test and measure is the tricky part, as it often requires union, labor, city and command staff to all weigh in on the best process. As long as everyone – and I mean everyone – understands that this is all being done to protect you, then the path is clear. When it becomes an us vs. them discussion, then the fitness and wellness programs often fall by the wayside.

5. Recruits: The right approach starts in the academy

Finally, the fire service must do a better job teaching recruits how to survive the job physically. This starts in the academy. If the instructor’s only purpose is to beat them down, then we failed. Yes, I want fit, motivated recruits ready to enter the field fit for duty, but if we break them in the process, what did you accomplish long term?

Teach your folks how to prehab, rehab, train for the job, sleep and eat for the job. Give them the tools and education to make the job better, and it’s all easy from there.

Building a hire-to-retire system

By following this framework, it’s possible to build a lasting fire-EMS fitness program that becomes part of the culture along with becoming a hire-to-retire system of firefighter wellness.

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