When the big red trucks show up on scene all the homeowner expects is a group of decathlete-brain surgeons to jump out and fix the problem. Not too much to expect, right? But what do they actually get?
Hopefully, someone well trained and fit enough to do the job.
Everyone hired is required to pass the physical fitness test – which some might argue that the standard should be higher in the first place, but that’s not what we’re getting into here yet. For many departments, if not most, there is no annual, bi-annual or semi-annual follow up and some are very thankful for this.
At least once in our careers we have all stepped on to the rig and looked over and thought “Guess I’m working for two today”. Yet, we’ll laugh it off or try to hide that person on scene, if they don’t do it themselves. This isn’t a witch-hunt to get rid of them but let’s look at the numbers and discuss some common scenarios.
Studies will consistently show that fire-ground tasks require a VO2 between 33 ml/kg/min and 49 ml/kg/min. When I got hired the minimum requirement was 42 ml/kg/min, right smack in the middle. So, for the “new-guy” that steps off the treadmill with a 43 ml/kg/min VO2 Max, they’ll be taking a chance that they won’t be able to meet the physical requirement for one third of the job.
What happens when you can’t meet the demands of the job? You either fail the task or you find a way to complete it and pay for it later through injury or worse. Our minds are amazing things and can help us overcome the basic survival limits our body has placed on itself. If it can shut these off it’s unbelievable what physical feats can be achieved. However, that threshold is there for our safety and when we blow by it the results can be catastrophic.
What surprised me the most when looking at the numbers closely is that a VO2 Max of 42 ml/kg/min plops you in the “average” category for fitness for anyone under 35! I’m not sure average fully satisfies the decathlete expectation but let’s play with that 42 for a minute here.
As we age we can expect a decline in fitness. It happens, the body just doesn’t work the same. What’s considered fit is dramatically lower for a 50-year-old versus a 25-year-old. So, let’s say that firefighters A, B and C all get hired with a VO2 Max of 42 at 25 years old. 42 meets the standard but they’re still considered average for a 25-year-old.
Firefighter A neglects the importance of physical fitness on the job and coasts through 25 years. Their fitness takes a nose dive and their VO2 Max registers at 32 ml/kg/min. This is considered an average fitness level for a 50-year-old but it doesn’t even fall into the range of fire-ground task demands. When they were 25, average was ok but now being an average 50-year-old won’t allow them to pass the entry test, let alone safely perform their job.
The next scenario we’ll look at is the guy who’s in “good shape” at 50. He has kept up with his physical training and clocks in at the required 42 ml/kg/min. This guy could still pass the physical if he was hired today but is still taking a chance with many fire-ground situations.
Firefighter C works hard and improves their VO2 Max score to 50 ml/kg/min. This firefighter is scoring off the charts for a 50-year-old but still just keeping up with the slightly above average 25-year-old.
What I hope this illustrates is how important it is to improve upon our fitness as we age in the fire service. Keeping up with the demands of the job requires an exceptional level of fitness for an older firefighter.
Being “average” at an older age doesn’t protect you or allow you to effectively perform the required tasks at a fire scene. Maybe you can get away with it at a younger age but as careers go on it becomes more important to take your physical fitness seriously.
This isn’t any kind of attack on those who have let their fitness slide over their careers. I’m just showing the numbers. Hopefully those individuals do realize the risk they are posing to not only themselves, but also the people they are protecting, their crew and their families.
There is a boat load of information out now showing how small of a time commitment it takes to change this and drastically improve one’s fitness, which I regularly highlight on this website.
At the end of the day, anything is better than nothing, and the numbers don’t lie.