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Design and Implementation of Fitness Programs for Firefighters

Abel, Mark G PhD, CSCS1; Sell, Katie PhD, CSCS2; Dennison, Katie MS, EMT

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Strength and Conditioning Journal: August 2011 - Volume 33 - Issue 4 - p 31-42
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e318212f412
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Firefighting is a strenuous occupation that requires optimal levels of physical fitness. Inadequate fitness levels may reduce occupational performance and increase the risk of injury to the firefighter. Given the strenuous requirements of firefighting, it is imperative that firefighters develop and maintain adequate fitness levels. One strategy to improve fitness levels is through participation in a regular exercise program.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) (18) has recommended that a health-related fitness program in the fire service should include the following 5 components: the assignment of a qualified health and fitness coordinator; a periodic fitness assessment for all members; an exercise training program that is available for all members; education and counseling regarding health promotion for all members; and a process for collecting and maintaining health-related fitness program data. The purpose of this article is to build upon these recommendations by providing insight and a plan of action for tactical strength and conditioning professionals in the development and implementation of an appropriate fitness program for firefighters. Specifically, this article will discuss how to (a) conduct a needs analysis, (b) generate support for a fitness program within a fire department, (c) manage relevant legal issues, (d) assess firefighter performance, and (e) design a functional training program.


A needs analysis is a critical component to developing an appropriate and effective strength and conditioning program. The needs analysis is a multistage process composed of goal setting, assessment, and research. Through this approach, department-wide deficiencies should be identified, training priorities should be highlighted, and a plan of action for program implementation can be developed. Although all stages of the needs analysis are important, the physiological, biomechanical, and injury analyses are probably the most critical components because these assessments will direct the fitness program's design. A physiological analysis is conducted to determine which metabolic system is used when performing specific tasks on the fire ground. Firefighting is a unique occupation that uses each energy system (Table 1). Although no single task exclusively uses 1 energy system, firefighting tasks can be classified based on the relative intensity and duration for which they are typically performed. For instance, high-intensity and short-duration tasks, like a hose pull, primarily utilize the ATP-CP system. Next, a biomechanical analysis should be conducted for common fire ground tasks to identify which planes of motion the task is performed in, the muscles and joints that are used, and type of muscle contractions used for each of these tasks (Table 2). Identification of these factors will guide the exercise selection. Finally, an injury analysis identifies common types and mechanisms of injuries. The most common acute injuries to firefighters are soft tissue sprains and skeletal muscle strains (11). These injuries commonly occur at the lower back, shoulder, and knee in firefighters (9). The most common causes of ergonomic-related injuries to firefighters are forceful exertions and operating in awkward positions (9). In addition, it is the belief of the American Council on Exercise that, in general, anatomical injuries occur because of a weakness in the affected muscles, agonist versus antagonist strength imbalance, and poor flexibility (9). To prevent acute injuries, it is critical that the firefighter uses proper lifting mechanics (e.g., during the upward movement phase, keep torso to floor angle constant, maintain a flat back position, keep load close to the body (4)), gets assistance when lifting heavy objects, identifies and avoids high-risk situations, and performs functional resistance training and flexibility exercises on a regular basis (9). Chronic injuries, such as cardiovascular disease, are also prevalent among firefighters and must be addressed as part of a comprehensive fitness program (10). Lifestyle modification (i.e., diet, exercise, smoking cessation) is critical to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, and the prevention/treatment of this disease is beyond the scope of this article. Knowledge of these factors provides insight to develop training strategies to prevent harmful and costly injuries, optimizes the likelihood of achieving training goals, and reduces the risk of missing critical information that might help facilitate or inhibit the program's success.

Table 1:
Physiological assessment of typical fire ground tasks classified by the energy system primarily used
Table 2:
Biomechanical analysis of typical fire ground tasks


To develop support for a fitness program within a fire department, it is first important to understand the organizational structure of a fire department. A fire department is an organization based on a chain of command, with the fire chief providing global leadership and policy development. Obtaining the support of the fire chief is critical to establishing departmental policies that will allow for the implementation of a fitness program. Next, officers are responsible for overseeing assigned tasks, ensuring that departmental policies are followed and providing leadership to firefighters.

Although the titles of officers vary by department, the rank order of the organizational structure is typically as follows: assistant chief, division chief, battalion chief, captain, lieutenant, senior firefighter, firefighter, and probationary firefighter. In many departments, a division chief is responsible for training the firefighters and is often a key player in the adoption and maintenance of a fitness program within the department. Other key fire personnel include battalion chiefs because they are responsible for the day-to-day activities of a group of firefighters. Finally, captains and lieutenants are positioned as leaders within individual fire stations and play a role in encouraging firefighters to participate in departmental programs, ensure that departmental policies are followed, and can establish a fitness-based culture within the fire station.

As a tactical strength and conditioning professional, it is critical to develop a rapport with each firefighter to earn his or her respect. This can be done on initiation of the fitness program by conducting a brief interview with fire service personnel. The interview can be used to assess his or her health history, discuss health and fitness goals, and inquire about any reservations the firefighter may have with regard to the program, and discuss how they can be overcome. Furthermore, developing a positive rapport with fire service personnel is critical to the success of a fitness program because of the close interaction of firefighters with their peers and shift officers.

Although developing rapport, establishing a departmental fitness policy, and scheduling time to participate in a fitness and wellness program are key to department-wide participation, encouraging individual participation in the program often requires a variety of creative incentive strategies because incentives have demonstrated improvements in behavior change (13,14,30). Consider implementing a point system that offers participants the chance to “win” or earn rewards based on healthy behavior outcomes (e.g., increased exercise participation, decreased frequency of fast-food intake, smoking cessation). The rewards offered should be something that is perceived to be a valuable motivator, such as a gift card, time off, or T-shirts. Another effective and low-cost strategy to promote program participation is to use intradepartment fitness challenges that provide winning stations, shifts, or firefighters with bragging rights or a trophy.


The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Wellness and Fitness Initiative (7) recommends that rationale be provided to support the development of a fitness program and annual physical fitness testing. Although upper management cooperation and support may not be required from a legal perspective to administer nonmandatory fitness programs, it is beneficial for avoiding political divisions that could impede universal and successful implementation of a departmental program. For a mandatory physical fitness program, the department head must sanction the program and potentially provide financial support. Furthermore, the implementation of mandatory programs will necessitate the input of additional professional expertise in the form of legal counsel, union representation, subject matter experts (e.g., tactical strength and conditioning professional), medical personnel, and firefighter personnel.

Mandatory programs, similar to physical fitness standards, may be subject to directives or guidelines outlined in organizational documents, such as the IAFF initiative (7) and NFPA 1583 Standard (18), and government legislation, such as the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures (5,6). As emphasized by Sharkey and Davis (26), the risk of adverse impact is present “… when there is a substantially different rate of selection in hiring, promotion, or other employment decisions that works to the disadvantage of members of a given gender or a race or ethnic group” (p. 167). Participation in a fitness program should be based on job requirements or stipulations, and the fitness program should be valid and beneficial to the operational function of the department and be accountable to legal stipulations outlined in legislation, including (but not limited to) the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 (Title VII) and 1991 (Title I), Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It is important to note that legislation and regulations regarding employment standards, physical fitness programs, and fitness testing policy may differ by country. For example, physical fitness standards within fire agencies in Australia are influenced by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Act of 2004 and various Australian antidiscrimination regulations, such as the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act of 1977 and the Victorian Equal Opportunities Act of 1995. In the United Kingdom, the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974 states that Fire and Rescue Services are obliged to provide assistance in helping employees remain fit for duty (19,20,28). However, employment policies may also be influenced by legislation such as the Equality Act 2010 that brings together several of the UK's antidiscrimination laws under one umbrella. Given the aforementioned differences commonly observed between countries, tactical strength and conditioning professionals are advised to consult the legislation and literature governing physical fitness training and testing at the national or federal level and state, region, or provincial level (especially if he or she may serve as a subject area expert for policy development).

Although inadequate levels of physical fitness (poor physical fitness test scores) may not have punitive repercussions, labor unions and departmental administration will be involved in negotiating the parameters of a mandatory fitness program to decrease the likelihood of adverse impact and increase perceived importance and “buy-in” throughout departmental fire personnel (7). Decisions that may require union and management input and/or cooperation include the composition of the program. For instance, will the fitness program be one component of a larger wellness incentive, and therefore, will the program consist of comprehensive fitness programming, nutritional counseling, and medical health screening? Legal and labor union counsel may also be involved in negotiating member time allowances for fitness programming or testing (e.g., duration, frequency, composition) and monetary commitments for the program to help fund fitness personnel and equipment needs.

These logistical considerations should be addressed during the needs analysis process before the introduction or modification of a physical fitness program or policy within a given fire department. Labor unions will be imperative for negotiating whether the fitness program is considered punitive, mandatory, and/or incentive based. Furthermore, the labor union will negotiate consequences for noncompliance, disability allowances, remediation (if a firefighter is identified as unfit), and fitness standards (if necessary). If physical fitness test scores are not considered punitive, what incentives or motivational strategies will be implemented to enhance retention? Incentives (e.g., rewards, monetary bonuses) should be fair to all involved (including firefighters who already have adequate levels of physical fitness) and therefore may be given for adherence and progression, not just the achievement of physical fitness.

Most departments provide an entry-level medical examination and an annual examination thereafter. The IAFF/International Association of Fire Chiefs, NFPA, and governing bodies within the exercise arena (ACSM and NSCA) mandate that a medical health history and any necessary medical clearance are obtained before exercise testing or program participation. Therefore, before physical fitness program implementation, it is necessary for all firefighters to obtain medical clearance to participate. This is an aspect of program development that cannot be ignored given the disturbing trend in cardiac events in firefighters brought on during physical exertion and have been attributed to preexisting cardiac conditions (17).

Preexisting conditions pose a significant challenge to fitness programming. However, this challenge can be safely overcome by working with a certified exercise professional who has knowledge of the condition and therefore can modify the program for safe participation. Consequently, if adverse risk factors for exercise are identified, a firefighter should consult with both a physician and the certified exercise professional before initiating a fitness program. Consultation with or the retention of an in-house certified physical fitness trainer is suggested in the IAFF Wellness and Fitness Initiative (7). The inclusion of an exercise professional increases the likelihood of safe program implementation.


Physical fitness testing is an important component of any physical fitness program. Regular (e.g., every 6 months or annually) testing provides a baseline for future comparison, identifies deficiencies, and assists in establishing personalized fitness and health-related goals. However, as with the fitness program, physical fitness tests should be valid measures for firefighters and pertain to areas of fitness pertinent to firefighter function. Currently, physical fitness recommendations for firefighters are predominantly based on occupational performance criteria, such as the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT). The CPAT is an entry-level (i.e., firefighter applicant) firefighter test composed of stair climb, hose drag, equipment carry, ladder raise and extension, forcible entry, search, rescue mannequin drag, and ceiling breach and pull tasks while wearing a 50-pound weighted vest. A pass/fail time has been established at 10 minutes 20 seconds (8). However, copyright forbids the use of such tests as annual performance assessments. Another example of a firefighter physical fitness test is the Pack Test for wildland firefighters. The Pack Test is one of the few physically demanding performance-based tests that wildland firefighters must pass each year. The Pack test involves hiking 3 miles in 45 minutes with a 45-pound backpack (29).

Physical fitness is an important component of a firefighter's functional capacity; however, it is not the only factor influencing performance on critical firefighting tasks. For instance, an unfit person may still be able to pass a firefighter performance test involving occupational tasks, just as a highly fit individual may not be able to pass a performance test because of inadequate skill or experience. Therefore, care should be taken in presenting the rationale for annual physical fitness testing.

Physical fitness testing should be justified as a means to evaluate health status and not just job performance (7,21). Justifying the use of fitness testing from a health perspective should be easy given that approximately half of firefighter on-duty deaths each year are the result of a cardiac event (10). Furthermore, higher levels of physical fitness have been correlated to decreased risk of injury and illness, which helps further reduce absenteeism and potentially increase productivity and work capacity (25). Finally, it is important to note that the use of physical fitness tests to evaluate job performance has come under close scrutiny from labor unions and has an increased likelihood of being challenged in a court of law if correct procedures in accordance with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission legislation (5,6) are not used.

Previous job task analyses and quantitative research have identified multiple areas of physical fitness that are related to the occupational demands of firefighting, including aerobic fitness, muscular strength and endurance, agility, flexibility, core integrity (endurance and stability), and body composition (3,15,16,23). A needs analysis within a specific department will help identify which areas of physical fitness are imperative for firefighters in the said department. The NFPA Standard 1583 (18) describes multiple tests for numerous areas of physical fitness pertinent to structural firefighters.

The identification of pertinent areas of physical fitness during a needs analysis, along with logistical considerations for the implementation of a physical fitness testing battery (e.g., equipment limitations, availability of trained personnel), may dictate the choice of tests incorporated. Recommendations on the development of physical fitness standards are beyond the content of this article, but for further information on the protocol for development and relevant, valid physical fitness tests refer to published research (5,6,27).


Developing a strength and conditioning program to improve firefighter performance is challenging because firefighters routinely perform tasks that require optimal levels of power, strength, muscle endurance, anaerobic endurance, and aerobic endurance. Preparing an individual to maximize performance on all these performance characteristics is extremely challenging. Unfortunately, there are limited data to provide insight as to the most appropriate training program for firefighters.

Peterson et al. (22) conducted a study comparing the effects of undulated training versus a traditional periodized model in firefighter trainees. The traditional periodized program included a systematic increase in training intensity throughout the 9-week training intervention, such that the program initially focused on improving muscle endurance and hypertrophy (9 exercise sessions), then basic and functional strength (9 exercise sessions), and finally on the rate of force development and peak power output (9 exercise sessions). In contrast, the undulated training program was characterized by daily fluctuations in intensity, volume, and exercise selection to elicit concurrent improvements in muscle endurance, hypertrophy, strength, and power/speed (22). Peterson et al. (22) reported that both training groups significantly improved 1-repetition maximum (1RM) bench press and squat, power output, and vertical jump. However, the undulated training group demonstrated greater improvements than the traditional periodized group on the following measures: 1RM bench press and squat, peak power output at 30% 1RM for squat, average and peak power output at 60% 1RM for squat, vertical jump height, and performance on a firefighter-specific job task test (i.e., Grinder test) (22). These findings indicate that over a 9-week period, training simultaneously for muscle endurance/hypertrophy, strength, and power (i.e., undulated training) may be a more effective training strategy to enhance firefighter task-specific performance compared with a linear periodized training program.

Roberts et al. (24) also conducted a study evaluating the fitness levels of firefighter recruits before and after a 16-week linear periodized training program. This program used similar resistance training intensities compared with Peterson et al. (22) (i.e., 70-90% 1RM). In addition, the firefighters in this study performed cardiovascular exercise that ranged from 65 to 90% of maximum heart rate throughout the program. The findings from this study indicated that training significantly improved V̇o2max, muscle endurance, and flexibility (24). There was a trend for an increase in handgrip strength (p = 0.06). Unlike the study by Peterson et al. (22), power output was not evaluated in this study. These investigations suggest that undulated and linear periodized programs improve firefighter fitness. However, at this time, because of limited research, it is difficult to determine what type of training optimizes firefighter performance and reduces the incidence of injury. Samples of linear and undulating periodized models for firefighters are displayed in Table 3.

Table 3:
Sample linear, circuit training, and undulating periodization models for firefighters

As an alternative to traditional resistance training methods, a circuit training may also enhance firefighter performance and provide several advantages for firefighters. Circuit training typically uses a combination of resistance and aerobic training exercises performed in sequential order with minimal recovery period between exercises. A sample of a circuit training periodized mesocycle for firefighters is displayed in Table 3. Circuit training may be beneficial for firefighters because it allows for an efficient use of time, stresses multiple energy systems that are used by firefighters (1,12), allows multiple firefighters to train simultaneously in a small area, and can be modified based on available equipment.

It is important to use the specificity principle when designing a circuit training workout for firefighters. That is, select multijoint resistance and cardiovascular exercises that mimic tasks performed on the fire ground. In addition, it is important to use actual equipment to train whenever possible, such as out-of-service hoses and ladders. For instance, to improve a firefighter's ability to advance a hose line (charged or uncharged), connect 2 sections of 1¾″ hose, place the hose nozzle over one shoulder, and pull it a set distance. To increase the difficulty of the task, tie a tire or weighted sled to the end of the hose to simulate the resistance of a charged hose line. Table 4 provides examples of additional exercises that simulate tasks commonly performed on the fire ground.

Table 4:
Indoor and outdoor resistance training exercises arranged by fire ground task

Finally, because of the low relative intensity of circuit training, there is concern whether it can provide an adequate training stimulus to improve strength and power in firefighters. In support of this contention, Campos et al. (2) have demonstrated that performing 4 sets of 3RM-5RM yields superior dynamic strength gains compared with performing 3 sets of 9RM-11RM or 2 sets of 20RM-28RM in untrained men (age, 22.5 ± 5.8 years). Therefore, it may be important to incorporate sets using heavier loads (i.e., ≥85% 1RM) and longer recovery periods to enhance strength gains as a supplement to circuit training. The ability of circuit training to improve power output for firefighters remains unclear.

Figure 1:
Upright hose pull.
Figure 2:
Ladder raise.
Figure 3:
Equipment carry.
Figure 4:
Victim drag.
Figure 5:
Stair climb with hose bundle.
Figure 6:
Hose hoist.
Figure 7:
Victim search.
Figure 8:
Ceiling breach and pull maneuver with pike pole.
Figure 9:
Forcible entry maneuver with sledgehammer.
Figure 10:
Kneeling hose pull.


In conclusion, there are many issues to consider when developing a comprehensive fitness program for firefighters, including the development of a supportive environment, managing legal issues, conducting a needs analysis, evaluating physical performance, and designing a functional training program. However, addressing each of these issues will build a strong foundation for a long-term fitness program that will enhance the firefighters' health, performance, and safety.


The authors would like to thank the Richmond, Kentucky Fire Department and the Kentucky Fire Commission for their assistance in the development of this article.


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circuit; needs analysis; resistance training; tactical

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