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The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fire Service Fitness

Like it or not when you entered the fire service you lost your right to be out of shape. Nobody is going to stop you from munching down an entire bag of ShirtplateCheetos while sitting in your sweatpants and watching Law and Order reruns but if that is normal for you, you suck. Firefighters are occupational athletes and our job is far too important to not be prepared. Watching YouTube videos and critiquing every online article from a beanbag chair accomplishes no actual good in this world and you still suck.
Let me swim upstream just a little ways. I realize things get in the way. Life happens. Kids happen. Second jobs and second mortgages. Time seems to be shorter than ever and as much as you might want to be fit enough to make it to the CrossFit games that’s just not a realistic goal for 99% of firefighters. So what is realistic? Use the time you do have. Don’t lie to yourself, your crew, your family, and your city by saying “I don’t have any time” because you do. Readiness has to become a priority. That may include time on shift when you labor alone in the engine bay with an ancient rusty barbell. It may include “Death by Burpees” at home in your garage when you really just want to catch up on The Walking Dead. Yes, you might even have to get up an hour earlier on a rainy Saturday to meet up with the other mental patients at the gym. If that’s too hard then tough tallywhackers. Either start taking some baby steps to improve today or write a letter to your family telling them you knew how to prevent a heart attack on duty but were too lazy to do anything about it. Nobody else should have to explain that to them but you.
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If you are a chief officer or decision maker and are reading this, WAKE UP! You create the culture your crews live in. It makes me mad enough to eat beeswhen I hear of some pencil pushing desk jockey going out of their way to keep good men and women from improving themselves. Fit responders deliver a better service to their jurisdiction and incur fewer injuries doing so. Those facts aren’t debatable. You need to be creating a wellness plan. If that is too foreign of a concept then at least be a facilitator and get out of people’s way.

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All this seem a little harsh to you? Good. The “Participation Trophy” mentality is not welcome in the firehouse and titty babies can hit the bricks. You will not be missed by those brave few who fight on. I don’t care about your feelings, I care about your life, my brothers who ride the truck with you, and the citizens you are sworn to protect. If you can’t do your job you are useless to me. I’m not telling you that at 60 you have to have a sub 2:00 Firefighter Combat Challenge time. That’s stupid. I am telling you that despite your achy shoulders and old football injuries you have a physical potential that you are obligated to maintain. It’s a sliding scale that declines over time but if you still jump on the truck and other lives depend on you then you better learn to suck it up and do the right thing.

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Now that I’ve pissed half of you off here are my 5 guidelines for Fire Service Fitness:
1.) More is NOT always better.
In 2009 the Surgeon General recommended getting 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise per week. In 2011 it was modified adding at least two days of strength training per week. Salty Sam says “since the Surgeon General is a big puss and I’m a superhero firefighter I need to at least triple all that right?” Salty Sam is stupid.
ldawg   Do I think the US government always knows best? Not even close. What’s my point then? Somehow most people have come to believe that within their body lies an infinite well of physical potential and it can only be obtained by wrecking themselves repeatedly. If a 10 minute conditioning workout twice per week  is good then a 60 minute workout once a day will get me fit at least ten times faster right? No, just no. You aren’t Rocky and fitness doesn’t work that way.
Let’s stay with the “well” analogy. Within your body is a well and its depth represents your level of fitness. The more fit we are the more we can draw from it when we need it but the well doesn’t refill instantly. Continuing to demand more and more without time for recovery and replenishment will result in crumbling walls and muddy water (loss of energy, chronic fatigue, injuries). Wellness is a long term goal and it must be approached correctly which leads right into point number deuce.
2.) Don’t be stupid.
Stupid seems so much more prevalent in men and I speak from a vast experience of stupid. We just do a lot of dumb things and somehow think the consequences will miss us. They won’t. It always catches up.p1050635
“I don’t need much sleep”. Yes you do. Oh, and you’re an idiot. Hundreds of thousands of hours of research has been performed and tens of thousands of pages have been written about the importance of sleep. If you don’t approach that 8 hour per night goal you are set for failure before getting off the launchpad.
“It’s been hurting for a few weeks but I figured I could just push through the pain”. You can’t. With a little experience you will know the difference between your muscles telling you they are sore and your body telling you it needs attention. Ignore the warning signs and you’ll be down for the count and your idiot record will still be intact.
I believe there is a small part of our consciousness that tends to make good decisions. In just about every idiotic choice I’ve made I can recall that voice of reason. I have usually chosen to ignore it but it was clear and more times than not “I knew better” was the conclusion. In his book Unbeatable Mind, Mark Divine calls it our “witness”. Stop being dumb, listen to your witness, slow down and use some common sense.
3.) Follow good programming.
This means following programming that is good for you at your current strength and conditioning level, not something fit for an elite Ironman. Unless you are an elite Ironman competitor then by all means carry on. “Scaling” is not a bad word (see #2 above). If you don’t want to live in the hurt locker and long term success is your goal then learn to swallow your pride. I plan to contribute for another 20 years and that isn’t going to happen without well thought out goals and a plan to achieve them.
While some factors on the fireground are indeed unknown and unknowable, there are many things we continue to encounter. Our gear will always be hot, heavy, and cumbersome. Axes have a predetermined weight. Victims will continue to be difficult to lift and move. SCBA bottles contain a finite amount of air. Limiting your training to long slow distance running isn’t going to prepare you very well for forcing doors and rescuing fat Uncle Randy.
“The Law of Specificity of Training” is something you probably have never heard of and thaEFLF-6-Weeks-To-Rippedt doesn’t matter. What does matter is specifically preparing for the known aspects of the job. Functional movements performed in realistic time domains transfer well to the fireground. A good trainer or coach will provide a well balanced, whole body approach to helping you improve your overall fitness. A great trainer will help you add in elements unique to the needs of a firefighter and make certain allowances from time to time.
To  “follow good programming”  includes not jumping ship in a month because you haven’t transformed into Thor via divine intervention. You didn’t get 50lbs overweight overnight and there is no 6 week program, even if accompanied by a miracle bowel cleanse and super powered Ovaltine energy boost, that is going to undo the damage that 10 years of crap eating and recliner riding has done.
4.) Do what you love.
When I first became a personal trainer, the manager at our gym was speechless when she heard me tell a client to avoid the treadmill. That client loathed the monotony of it and dreaded every trip to our facility so I sought out other ways to help them achieve their goal of losing weight.
If you would rather close your thumb in a car door than run, don’t make yourself do it five times a week. At the very least dramatically trim down the distance  you include in your workouts. When you actually enjoy training it will be the start of an awakening. I almost never run a distance over 400 meters but my 5k time is within two minutes of a few years ago when I was logging around 25 miles per week.
I began toying with CrossFit in 2011. I’d heard a lot of buzz about it especially relating to combat readiness so I wanted to see what it was all about. It was 2012 before a “box” opened in my city but I’ve been a member ever since and consider many of our athletes family. I have not dreaded a workout since diving in at CrossFit Protocol. That’s not to say I don’t have a good deal of 945401_t607apprehension about some of the crap our head coach programs. (If you are reading this Scott I still think it’s good programming but it does make me think you are a sadist and a sicko on occasion). It’s different to face something tough with a team that cares about who you are and how you do. Isn’t that what the fire service is supposed to be like?
There is nothing wrong with following Outlaw programming on your own if that makes you happy. Love riding your bike? Ride on. Love shooting hoops? Wear the leather out. If it is helping you become a better firefighter I salute you. For the love of all that is holy and in the name of Brunacini just find some stinking passion!
One other small piece of advice. Find a way to be accountable. Invite some of your crew over a few nights a week. Ask the wife to buy in with you. Heck, your annoying neighbor might even be the push you need. People tend to stay true for far more longer when someone else is expecting them to.
5.) Eat real food.
I’m not a nutritionist but you don’t need a PhD to know that eating a gazillion calories worth of honey buns every day probably isn’t the greatest of ideas. The most simple way I’ve heard it expressed is this: “eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar.” If it grows in the ground in the form you find it in or if it had a face when alive its probably somewhat nutritious.
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I would encourage you to check out whole30.com or wholelifechallenge.com and nerd out. I am not a fan of short term diets but both of these websites are full of great information. My wife and I completed the strictest form of the Whole30 and it was life changing.
If you aren’t ready to jump on board just yet, start by making one better decision at a time. Start drinking water, then start drinking more. Trim down your soda habit then cut it out. Stop eating sweets after supper for a few weeks, then stop after lunch.
CONCLUSION
You have been blessed with an opportunity at having the best career in the world. Thousands have gone before you creating a rich heritage that has made the fire service an object of pride, respect, and dedication. Millions now depend on the American firefighter during their most vulnerable moments and when you show up they expect nothing less than Superman. Don’t be a moron and piss it all away because you love the taste of ice cream. Everybody loves ice cream. I just love being a firefighter more.
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Q & A with an Overseas Fire Service Instructor

As this is my first article for the Station Pride movement, I thought it would be fun to write an article in a question and answer format. I’ll leave it open for people to ask more questions. Anyone who has aspirations of becoming an instructor, working overseas in the fire service, or wanting to know more about how things are done in other parts of the world may find this interesting. Anyone who has worked as a firefighter or  an instructor “ on this side of the pond”, will likely be shaking their heads, laughing and/or experience PTSD flashbacks.

What is it like to train firefighters overseas?    IMG_4475

Instructing outside of the United States is certainly as educational for the Instructor, as it is for many students. Moving so far away from home is never easy, and leaving the majority of your own culture behind is even more difficult. Factor in the differences in fire service culture, mindset and language or translation barriers and you’ve got a little better idea of just the tip of the proverbial iceberg regarding issues that you can run into.

The issue of communication is certainly a big one. While almost all of my students here are well versed in the English language, qatar-mapdespite coming from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Egypt or Morroco, their version of English, or the true comprehension of it, can be lacking. What gets fun is having guys from Canada, South Africa, Australia or the U.K. and then trying to get on the same page with them. Either way, it is rare that you find someone who doesn’t speak even the most basic English. What gets difficult is putting things in technical fire service terms and getting non-english speakers to understand it.

For example: Ever had the debate with another fireman from the other side of the country about what a pike pole is called? To some, it’s exactly that, to others is called a hook. However, in South Africa it’s called a Preventor. As in, it prevents the ceiling from collapsing when you use it to remove the ceiling from above you. Imagine if you will, three firemen standing around arguing about what the name of the tool is and what it’s design is for, only to discover that it is used for the same tasks in all three countries…just called something different. We all immediately started laughing at how silly the whole thing is. Jacket vs. Tunic, Nozzle vs. Branch, Apparatus vs. Appliance, Vest vs. Tabbard. Needless to say, we all learn a lot from each other, have a few laughs and give each other a good ribbing, just to pass the time.

What’s up with that “euro gear”?                                        Formation

Without a doubt, it is nothing like anything we would use in the NFPA system. It has its benefits and its drawbacks. I’ll start at the helmet and work down.

The helmet style, often referred to as a “space helmet” or “helicopter helmet” is produced by several manufacturers that include MSA, Rosenbauer and others. It is thermoplastic, like some of our NFPA helmets, but has no brim off the rear. It has a neck curtain that attaches at the bottom to help protect the neck. f1eIt also has two separate eye/face shields that stow inside the helmet. My experience with it has not been positive, as it is extremely hard to hear anything except the sound f your own voice, and it retains an incredible amount of heat inside the helmet. It should also be noted that many of our students are fascinated with our U.S. traditional style helmets, and agree that they are of a much better design.

The nomex flash hoods are very similar, if not identical to ours.

The bunker jacket (often referred to as a tunic) is very light weight. In fact, I own North Face jackets that are heavier. It is extremely thin, and offers minimal thermal protection and even less water resistance.

The bunker pants ( referred to as trousers) is made of identical material. However, there are no pockets on the trousers, and they fit a bit like I suspect skinny jeans do on European men.

The boots are actually quite good, and offer a lot of support and have an athletic quality to them.

Finally, the SCBA ( referred only as a BA) is manufactured by Drager or Scott, but is to European standard. There is no gauge on the cylinder, and there is no way to tel externally if the cylinder is full, or empty. There is no integrated PASS alarm, and the external PASS systems are very quiet in comparison to even our older NFPA rated stand-alone systems. All of the buckles are thermoplastic. The cylinders are not much different in construction than ours, but there are some differelogo_nfpa_400x400nces.

All of this being said, before you find yourself shaking your head with a triumphant smile on your face that NFPA is superior to our neighbors across the pond, you have to bear some things in mind.

Like their fire apparatus (referred to as a fire appliance) their PPE is constructed to mirror their tactics. Yes, contrary to popular belief that European firefighters do not make interior attacks in structure fires, they do. They just do it under a different set of 91483658guidelines than we do. And why shouldn’t they? They’ve been fighting fire for a lot longer than we have. Also keep in mind that their building construction is a lot older and heavier, and that the fuel load is of the legacy type. Something that we in the US are just beginning to understand with the help of NIST/UL.

 

What type of fire apparatus do you use?

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The local fire departments use a variety of equipment, and span nearly a dozen or more manufacturers. Currently they operate Metz, Rosenbauer and Bronto aerials. For engines they primarily use Scania or Mercedes commercial chassis with Metz, BAI or Rosenbauer boxes. ARFF is exclusively Rosenbauer Panther crash rigs. However, our training facility uses new Oshkosh Global Strikers. The ruler of the country here has mandated that all fire equipment and tactics start to convert to NFPA. It is a slow process. As Qatar, as well as much of the region has only had it’s independence from Britain for a relatively short period of time, it’s very difficult to get them to change over. But it is happening. Some other Arab countries are already doing it. In fact, Saudi Arabia is roughly 95% NFPA compliant as of January 2015.

 

 What are the strategy/tactics like?    IMG_4407

What our NIST and UL research has taught us in cooling the environment before making entry, is not exactly cutting edge tactics. Many European departments began doing this a long time ago. The concept of “hitting it hard from the yard” has long been the tactics of departments outside of the US. What makes the NIST/UL research unique is that it PROVES it to be beneficial with science. I know, I know. I can hear some of you groaning already. But you simply cannot argue science, provided that the scientific evidence gathering is, well, scientific. Read that word as valid or sound.

What makes a lot of US firefighters groan about it, is that it’s not as “manly” or “aggressive” as how we are accustomed to doing things. We prefer to “take the hit” or “make the push” and “go for the grab”. (Insert your choice of catchy FDNY wannabe fireman speak here). Please don’t misread that last statement. Before you lose your collective minds over it, I mean no disrespect to the phrases, the FDNY or to our US fire heritage. I AM referring to the firefighters who like to simply use the catch phrases to sound more like a fireman. The bottom line is this boys and girls: it’s 2015. It’s time (and long over due ) to take a serious look at how we do things.

All of my students here wonder how and why we kill as many firefighters every year in the US. The fact is, it is truly amazing when you stack up the amount of firefighter LODD deaths from the US Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 10.40.20 PMcompared to that the rest of the global fire community. Now before you techies out there take to the internet to try to either validate or invalidate this comment, bear in mind that we have many more firefighters in the US than other countries. Statistically speaking, this is not hard to understand. But the way that we are dying at incidents (not including cardiovascular emergencies, which we all know is the highest cause) is still much higher than the global average.

NFFF, NFA, IAFF and IAFC (among many others) have amazing and effective initiatives to help bring the average number of yearly LODD’s down from 100.

We have made incredible strides in firefighter safety. But we still need to continue to take a hard look at our tactics, our PPE, and our overall effectiveness to get the job done. Notice that I didn’t say to make the job safer. I have heard too much of that my entire career, and am sick to death of it. I found myself screaming in my bunk room at Lt. Ray McCormacks FDIC speech in complete agreement. I had colleagues coming in to see what had me so worked up. I admired his courage to finally say it in a public forum!

Truth be told though, we are finding that the way that we used to do it, in some circumstances, was actually the right way, even way back then. The 2 ½” line, the smooth bore nozzle, the tactics of “making that push”. But we’re also finding out the hard way, that we’ve been wrong in a lot of areas as well. And our brothers and sisters have paid for it in blood.

But NFPA is really better than British Standard, Right?

Here’s the bottom line: Throw 100 firemen from 20 different countries in the same room together. Assuming that they can all communicate with each other, I would bet a years salary that they would all agree that there should be only one standard for firefighters to follow. They all would agree that there are too many standards that govern equipment, apparatus, PPE and tactics. Where the fist fight would start, is determining whose system to adopt globally. We all know how stubborn firemen can be when it comes to change. And how impossibly stubborn we get when wimagese’re told that we have to relearn something that we learned 10 years ago…or 10 days ago.

Truthfully, the British Standard way is not as crazy as it all appears. NFPA could learn a thing or two from that way of doing things. And we  have. Know where the NFPA 1901 reflective chevron requirements came from? That’s’ right… departments all over the world were using this to bring higher visibility to their apparatus decades ago. That NFPA 1500 requirement to use high visibility safety vests on highway incidents? Yep… you guessed it. They’brandman800_1017338ave been doing that across Europe for years too.

So what is the best way?

In my humble opinion, the Brothers (and Sisters) in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries like Japan, Singapore and the Philippines have got it pegged. They have waded into the quagmire that one can easily find themselves in regarding these two standards, have extracted the best of both worlds, and finally used some good common sense to apply it to the areas that they serve. I am in constant amazement from these firefighters who really research what is going to be best for them. They have a healthy respect for both standards, and their respective places in fire service history.

All of that being said though, the entire world is watching our NIST/UL research. No one else on the planet is conducting scientific research like this. And they are learning as much from the data and research as we are in the US. If you don’t hear Bob Dylan’s voice singing “the times, they are a changin’” then you simply aren’t paying attention.


What is your biggest challenge as an instructor over there?

 There are two big ones:

  1. Fire Service Culture
  2. Cultural Values and Differences

This is sure to make for an interesting topic for my next piece, but to simplify it for now, you must understand that the fire service in many other parts of the world is not looked upon favorably. In many ways, there are a lot of similarities in how the culture here treats it’s firemen, and emergency services in general, to how the US treated it’s firemen and police officers around 120 years ago. It does give me hope, that one day, hopefully with the introduction of the NFPA system, that one day soon, the overall culture here will realize that these men should be respected for the oath that is so similar to ours in the US.

So, that concludes the question and answer article. If you have any more follow up questions about any of the above, or you have new questions, feel free to post them in the comments and I’ll get to you just as soon as I can.

Stay safe!