Strenuous firefighting affects every system in our bodies. Studies have documented that a firefighter’s heart rate can reach or exceed 200 beats per minute when engaged in structural firefighting operations and remain there for an extended period—something that’s not likely to be duplicated even under high-intensity physical-training sessions.
To be able to quantify the intensity of work firefighters and other athletes are subjected to, we use the metabolic intensity of a task (MET). Simply put, it is a measure used to associate the amount of oxygen needed to complete a physical task.
It can also be referred to as VO2 Max, the maximal oxygen uptake that can be used during highly strenuous exercise. It’s essentially the oxygen cost of an activity, where one MET equals a body at rest.
NFPA 1582, Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Programs for Fire Departments, provides specific recommendations on minimum MET values for both candidate and incumbent firefighters. Research has shown (and it’s recommended by NFPA 1582, A.126.96.36.199) that firefighters should be able to maintain a minimum of 12 MET capability to perform essential job tasks or be counseled to improve their fitness.
Furthermore, the 12-MET minimum is the requirement set forth in NFPA 1582, Section 6.2, for return to full duty from a Category-A medical condition—one that precludes a firefighter from being certified as meeting the medical requirements of the standard.
But here’s where the rubber meets the road: The act of searching and rescuing a victim or firefighter under arduous firefighting conditions is by far our most difficult assignment, both physically and mentally.
This is clearly demonstrated by the MET value associated with the task. It’s also difficult to argue with the stressors experienced in situations where self-rescue or rapid-intervention operations become necessary.
Being prepared for self-rescue and rapid intervention operations goes far beyond having the technical proficiency to implement the required skills necessary for search, disentanglement and victim removal. Firefighters must be mentally and physically conditioned to deal with these conditions as well.
Increasing your MET value is directly associated with the frequency and intensity of physical-fitness training. Participating in a regular physical-fitness program that’s functional for you as a firefighter isn’t just the best way to increase your physical capacity to get the job done; it will also improve your mental acuity and ability to maintain situational awareness under extreme stress.
Here are some tips to get you started:
- Get an annual NFPA 1582-compliant medical evaluation. Job-specific medical evaluations are proven to save lives.
- Make your fitness training functional. Engage in exercises that replicate tasks required on the fireground.
- Balance your fitness training; include cardiovascular capacity, core strength training, flexibility training and functional movements, such as pushes, pulls, lifts, carries and drags.
- Focus on a comprehensive approach to your fitness that also includes proper rest and recovery, hydration and nutrition.
Make no mistake about it—your ability to perform required tasks in self-rescue and rapid-intervention situations is directly related to your level of fitness for duty.
As you train to increase your fireground proficiency, you must not neglect the importance of being physically and mentally fit for your job. It must be viewed as a requirement, regardless of whether you’re a career or volunteer firefighter. And you must take action to ensure you’re prepared for the worst.