The headline (retrieved from www.fireengineering.com) reads: “More Firefighters Injured During Exercise than on the Job”
Here is a brief summary of the report released by the American Physical Therapy Association:
“Firefighters are more likely to be injured while exercising than while putting out fires, according to an article published online in Injury Prevention. Carrying patients is the task most likely to require time off from work.
Researchers looked at data for injuries sustained while at work for 21 fire stations serving the metropolitan area of Tucson, Arizona, between 2004 and 2009. The 650 employees included firefighters, paramedics, engineers, inspectors, and battalion chiefs. The average age was 41 years, and all but 5% were men.
During the study period, the average annual incidence of new injuries was 17.7 per 100 employees, most of whom were in their 30s and 40s.
Injuries sustained while exercising accounted for a third of the total, despite the fact that exercising is designed to keep employees in good physical condition, in a bid to stave off the risk of injury while doing their job.”
The report does not specify what type of exercise or physical activity is causing injuries to firefighters. Physical preparedness is an absolute necessity for firefighters. Our physical training must prepare us to perform at a high level, prevent injuries and return home safely after each shift. There is something wrong if one third of firefighter injuries are being attributed to exercise.
Consider the following when designing, selecting, or participating in your firefighter fitness program:
- Firefighters are professional athletes. It doesn’t matter if you are a career or volunteer firefighter. Fighting fire is one of the most extreme forms of exertion a person may be subjected to. Most of what we do as firefighters requires a high level of physical fitness. Professional athletes such as football players, basketball players, etc. participate in fitness programs that develop the attributes required of their sport. They practice their sport as part of a team. Firefighters must participate in a comprehensive fitness program that develops the wide range of physical attributes necessary to serve the public to the best of our ability, avoid injuries and return home safely. “Practicing” as a team (Company Level Occupational Training) is the other crucial component of improving performance and safety.
- Comprehensive Firefighter Fitness. The physical attributes that we as firefighters should be developing in our individual fitness programs include, but may not be limited to: Strength, Power, Endurance, Metabolic Conditioning, Dynamic Body Movement, Core Strength and Joint Mobility. Focusing on any one attribute at the expense of the others may hamper performance and increase the likelihood of injury.
- Recovery from moderate and high intensity training is the highest priority. Firefighters are hard charging, competitive people by nature. Our tendency is to “go big or go home”. We often lose sight of the fact that our physical gains and adaptation to physical training occur during recovery. Frequent high intensity training will often lead to overtraining syndrome. We start feeling “beat up” or “broken down”. Our general health, performance and mobility actually begins to suffer. One or two high intensity days a week would be ideal. Moderate intensity strength training should be addressed a couple of times per week, and the other days should be dedicated to active recovery in the form of soft tissue work (massage, foam roll, etc.), compensatory movements/yoga, stretching, joint mobility, recreational activities, etc. Varied intensity is a key component of comprehensive firefighter fitness.
- There is no such thing as a one size fits all physical fitness program. The best physical fitness program for any individual is the one that they will follow consistently. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. We have different baseline fitness levels and we have different types of physical activity that we like to participate in. Find something that you like, make sure that it contributes to the development of the physical attributes listed above, and make sure that injury prevention and proper recovery are prioritized in your training schedule.
- Don’t push others beyond their limits. There is a fine line between encouragement and coaxing someone to train beyond their limits. What may seem reasonable to one person may actually be dangerous for someone else. One more lap or ten more reps may mean the difference between a productive workout and a destructive workout. Training into overexertion (see symptoms listed below) does not produce a positive training effect. It can actually make you sick. Missing work, or being unable to work out for several days or weeks is not the desired effect of physical training. One of the greatest things about our job is the family environment that we work in, and being part of a high performance team. Physical fitness training is something that we should participate in together as a crew each shift. It is vital that we recognize everyone should be performing at different levels based on their current fitness. Each individual should be focusing on improving on their last performance, not someone else’s. The best teammates are those that help each other improve over time. The last thing we want to do is see someone become sidelined by an exercise induced illness or injury.
- Leave ego at the door: Firefighting is an occupation where toughness matters. Slowing down or quitting a workout before the other members of the crew may be perceived as weakness. This is not a healthy mentality to have, and could lead to serious injury. Firefighters are inherently competitive, and a little good natured competition can be a positive thing. Don’t lose sight of the fact that we all have different fitness levels, and we should not try to keep up with those whose limits may exceed our own. Know your limits and train hard, but train smart and safely as well. It is o.k. to slow down or even stop the workout if you feel that you are over exerting yourself. In fact, this is an absolute must, especially if you are on duty.
- Focus on proper technique. No matter what type of physical activity you are engaged in, make sure you are focused on proper technique and body mechanics. This will help to prevent injuries while exercising, and it will teach your body to function with proper mechanics while performing your duties as a firefighter.
- Maintain response readiness. It is important that firefighters are ready to respond and perform at a high level at all times. Our physical fitness program prepares us to do this. While on duty, it is important that we don’t train at such a high intensity that it has a negative impact on our ability to perform. Be cautious not to get caught up in “competitive” workouts while on duty. “Firefighter A” may be able to perform a grueling workout, and still be capable of high level performance on calls. “Firefighter B” may become ill from the exact same workout. Know your own limits and do not exceed them while on duty. Using a heart rate monitor is the best way to gauge exercise intensity. Be cautious when exceeding 85% of your maximum heart rate. This is high your high intensity training zone. Rating of perceived exertion is another way to gauge the intensity of your training. A rating of “1” would be no intensity and “10” would be the hardest exercise you are capable of. Be cautious if you get to 8 out of 10 while on duty.
- Be cautious with sports on duty. Playing sports can be a lot of fun and a great way to stay in shape. It may also place us at a higher risk for injury. The competitive nature of firefighters coupled with the uncontrollable aspects of certain sports may be setting us up to get hurt. If you choose to play sports on duty, be careful not to get carried away. Your health, wellness and ability to perform your duties are the highest priority.
- Extreme shortness of breath or labored breathing (difficult to talk)
- Unusually sore and painful muscles
- Difficulty moving your joints through a full range of motion due to muscle tightness or fatigue
- Heart rate remains high when exertion is reduced
- Chest pain
- Feeling extremely hot, flushed, diaphoretic
- Reduced coordination
- The “taste of iron” in the back of your throat and “burning” in your lungs
Be aware of rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdomyolysis is a condition in which skeletal muscle cells break down, releasing myoglobin (the oxygen-carrying pigment in muscle) together with enzymes and electrolytes from inside the muscle cells. The risks associated with “Rhabdo” include muscle breakdown and kidney failure. The key signs and symptoms of rhabdomyolysis include dark, red, or brown colored urine and muscle tenderness, stiffness, aching (myalgia) or weakness.
- Specificity of training is important. Anyone participating in a form of exercise that is much different in technique, or much higher in intensity relative to what they have been doing may be susceptible to rhabdomyolysis. Ease into any new training program and use caution when pushing your limits of intensity.
- Stay hydrated. It is critical that firefighters stay hydrated for many reasons. Avoiding exertional rhabdomyolysis is another reason.
- Be careful with pull ups/pulling exercises. Pull ups tend to be the main culprit in relatively fit individuals that end up with rhabdo. The eccentric stress placed on the biceps can be extreme. If you are doing pull ups, and you notice your range of motion decreasing, or you have a hard time straightening your arms, or you feel an “extreme pump” of the muscles, it may be time to stop.
See a physician immediately if your urine looks like this!
Firefighters should not be getting hurt while exercising. It is important that firefighters workout hard to prepare for the rigors of the job, but it is even more important that we recover from high intensity training and follow a “health first” approach to fitness. Remember, the workout is not the goal. Maximizing firefighter performance and longevity is the goal. It is possible (and reasonable) to train harder and smarter! Stay safe out there.