While every fire fighter will likely have similar activities of daily living (e.g. climbing stairs, sitting on chairs, personal hygiene), and comparable job responsibilities (e.g. pulling hose, doing a primary search, maintaining an apparatus), the activities they engage in outside of work, and thus their mobility needs, can differ dramatically. For example, a fire fighter who operates their own roofing company will have different movement requirements than a fire fighter who doesn’t, but rather dedicates their off-duty time to training for triathlons. The need to use specific ranges of motion while moving with heavy loads, at high speeds and/or for prolonged durations, makes accessing and controlling these ranges even more challenging. For this reason, the mobility needs of every fire fighter should be considered within the context of the activities they need and want to perform.
What is mobility?
Joint mobility is commonly described as the maximum available range of motion in in a particular direction. In other words, “How much range of motion is available?”. This information is commonly gathered using passive assessments, whereby the body segments of the individual being assessed are moved by another person, or by some other external force (such as gravity or a rope), into an end range position. Movement in this case is NOT produced via the muscular actions of the individual being assessed. For example, passive ankle dorsiflexion mobility (where the top of the foot moves towards the shin, or vice versa), can be assessed using a weight bearing lunge test, whereby from a split stance, a person shifts their weight forward and attempts to position the knee as far beyond the big toe of the same leg as possible.
Since all the activities fire fighters need or want to perform involve the ability to access various joint positions, having sufficient passive mobility (i.e. having enough range available) is important. However, having enough range of motion available is only half of the story, perhaps more important is the ability to access the range of motion that is currently available.
Most of the activities that fire fighters perform, whether work- or life-related, are also “whole-body” in nature, and require that motion be expressed from all major joints of the body in some coordinated way (e.g., walking, lifting). This is a somewhat fancy way of saying that we must actively move ourselves and cannot rely on being moved passively by outside forces like a marionette doll. Although this is stating the obvious, it is an often overlooked fact which has implications for understanding how to assess and address a fire fighters mobility needs.
In contrast to passive mobility, the active mobility about a given joint, can be viewed as the ability to actively access (by activating your muscles) the range of motion you currently have available (i.e. your passive mobility). For example, active ankle dorsiflexion mobility can be assessed using a split squat task, where an individual is asked to place themselves in a position whereby the front knee is projected beyond the big toe to a specified target, while descending into the bottom position of the split squat (front thigh parallel with the ground). “How much” RoM is accessed at the ankle can be evaluated via the position of the front knee in relation to the specified distance target.
Once an appreciation of a fire fighter’s passive and active mobility has been gained, a last potential consideration depending on the individuals demands/goals is to assess their active mobility under higher demand scenarios. For example, if a fire fighter is required to perform tasks that require ankle dorsiflexion while bearing high loads, then observing their active mobility in these conditions can be very informative in determining their capacity to safely and effectively meet the demands imposed by these tasks. A greater demand can also arise as the tasks being performed become more complex (such as lifting a tool overhead), and/or more constrained (e.g. lifting in a confined space). Whatever the case may be, observing how a fire fighter performs under such circumstances can provide critical data about their mobility.
In summary, mobility should be viewed as having passive (i.e. the available range), and active (i.e. the accessible range) components that may be influenced by the demands of the activities being performed. Considering a fire fighter’s mobility needs in this way will allow for tailored recommendations to be made that are unique and relevant to the activities of work, life and play.