Although the International Association of Fire Fighters’ (IAFF) and Fire Chiefs (IAFC) have emphasized the importance of fitness in their joint Wellness and Fitness Initiative (WFI), many firefighters do not maintain the fitness necessary to perform safely and effectively throughout their career. This post provides a brief summary of the 2017 study conducted by Cornell DJ, Gnacinski SL, Meyer BB, and Ebersole KT. Changes in health and fitness in firefighter recruits: An observational cohort study. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (published online ahead of print), 2017. The objective of the study was to observe the changes in health and fitness among firefighter recruits immediately and 24 weeks following a 16-week academy.
It is widely accepted that firefighters must be physically fit to safely and effectively carry out their occupational duties. For this reason, many pre-service education and training academies include exercise programming to enhance the physical readiness of recruits. Although there is evidence that recruits’ fitness can be improved at the academy (e.g. Gnacinski et al. 2016), it is unknown if and how long these improvements are maintained. Improving firefighters’ fitness and maintaining firefighters’ fitness throughout the duration of their careers may require different implementation strategies.
Twenty-seven firefighter recruits had their physical fitness assessed upon entry (Week 1), at near-completion (Week 14), and 24 weeks after graduating (Week 38) from a 16-week training academy. After graduating, the recruits assumed probationary status at a fire station, where they worked 24-hour shifts on a rotating 3-shift schedule. The study objective was to document the effects of exercise programming during the academy (Week 1 vs. Week 14), and to determine if these effects were maintained throughout the probationary period of active-duty (Week 14 vs. Week 38).
The academy was affiliated with an urban fire department, and included formal job skill/technical training (e.g. handling and operation of equipment and tools), structured exercise sessions, and education related to physical and mental health. Exercise sessions at the academy were compulsory and consisted of various combinations of aerobic, resistance training, and flexibility exercises. After graduating from the academy, exercise was not mandated, but the recruits were encouraged to maintain their physical fitness levels via department-assisted exercise sessions and/or by engaging in exercise on their own time. Seventeen fitness measurements that addressed body composition, aerobic capacity, and muscular strength, power, and endurance were made in Weeks 1, 14, and 38.
The inclusion of compulsory exercise sessions at the academy increased the physical fitness of trainees. Specifically, improvements were found in 4 of 5 body composition, 3 of 3 aerobic capacity, 2 of 3 muscular strength, 1 of 4 muscular power, and 2 of 3 muscular endurance measurements between Weeks 1 and 14.
At the end of the probationary period (Week 38), most physical fitness measures decreased with respect to their Week 14 levels. Only 1 measure of body composition, aerobic fitness, and muscular strength remained stable between Weeks 14 and 38. Upon closer inspection of the data, the researchers noted that the specific physical fitness decrements could increase the risk of cardiovascular events and musculoskeletal injuries in the firefighters studied.
1. Organizational support is needed to maintain firefighters’ fitness throughout their career
After just 24 weeks of leaving the academy the firefighters’ fitness declined such that even at this early stage of their career they were described as being at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal injury. Over the course of a career, this could impose a substantial personal and economic burden on any department. Because there were only 27 participants from one urban fire department included in this study, the generalizability of the findings is somewhat limited; however, the results do highlight a need to provide support (e.g. organizational culture) and resources (e.g. certified Peer Fitness Trainers) to help new firefighters develop and maintain their health, fitness, and performance throughout their career. In doing so, the health and safety of individual firefighters, their brothers and sisters, and the people they serve and protect will be maximized.