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Maintaining Our Most Valuable Resources

With many budgets being stretched, fire chiefs must constantly evaluate where budget dollars are allocated for the greatest benefit to the residents as well as your important and valued first responders.

Safety, effectiveness and efficiency are definitely concerns we evaluate constantly. It’s through addressing these three basic concerns that you, as a fire chief, develop the basis for meeting your mission in the most economical manner, given the resources provided.

Apparatus, facilities, PPE and equipment all require care, inspection, upkeep and maintenance. These are just a few of many resources that significantly increase safety and effectiveness. With decades of advances in these areas, firefighting remains a highly labor-intensive occupation. How can we maximize funding for maintaining the fitness of our firefighters?

Begin by considering these points:

  • Firefighters have the highest risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks compared to any other occupation.
  • Sudden cardiac events account for approximately 51% of firefighter duty-related deaths annually.
  • In a recent study of 527 Midwestern firefighters, 75% participated in less than the recommended 150 minutes of recommended weekly exercise.

In an effort to address the importance of these facts pertaining to firefighter health, having limited financial resources to design and implement appropriate programs, the fire service in the Great Lakes area reached out to University of Wisconsin–La Crosse Sports Medicine Department for guidance. Professors in Biomechanics and Movement, Cardio Vascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation and Injury Prevention and Strength departments formed a partnership with the fire service and help with developing a regimented fitness program. They wanted to monitor the results over a period of time to see what health improvements could be made to reduce the cardiovascular problems plaguing the fire service.

University students from each discipline were assigned specific tasks following the provided firefighter job descriptions along with NFPA applicable standards. Firefighters designed a job-based competency physical-ability course, similar to the CPAT course used by many departments throughout the United States, and monitors were attached to each of the participants to measure mean maximum heart rate and mean maximum VO2 as they completed the evolution.

After a critical review of the collected data from this initial testing process, UWL professors designed exercise programs based specifically on the physical demands of firefighters while engaging in structural firefighting and tasks within their job descriptions. Each firefighter worked with students and professors for 12 weeks.

Each of the measured outcomes improved, some drastically. While this program was undertaken by a random group of firefighters and students at all levels of physical fitness at the onset of the program, the results speak for themselves. Blood pressures improved as well as estimated VO2 levels—an important result for anyone who goes from zero to 100 when the alarm comes in for a structure fire at 3 AM. There were also improvements in body fat percentage, which we all know is a big problem for many in the fire service as we age.


Firefighters and staff believe that fitness was important and they worked with University of Wisconsin–La Crosse to form a partnership that resulted in higher fitness levels of our firefighters with minimal impact on the budget. Firefighters have continued placing importance on fitness, and one has earned certification as a strength and conditioning coach. Workout time has transitioned into something that’s part of our culture, and the proficiency course is now an annual measurement of strength and endurance.

These results can easily be duplicated, with little financial output, in any department if the will is there to improve. It’s up to you, as the leaders in your organization, to either seek out these types of programs or work with your local universities to help you make health and safety of all responders under your command the highest priority.

We can no longer accept the death rates of firefighters from cardiovascular disease that we have seen over the last several decades. It is time to step up and be the leaders we were appointed to be and work with labor, the department administration and our community elected officials to mandate these types of programs for all first responders.

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