By Robert Avsec
The most important piece of firefighter safety equipment is the individual firefighter. If the individual inside the turnout gear, wearing the SCBA, working under a command structure, with a portable radio is not in good physical condition he is the weakest link in the firefighter chain-of-survival.
Unfortunately, statistics support this; we have too many firefighters dying or becoming disabled from preventable diseases and injuries.
Before getting into any discussion of fitness equipment that a department should have available for its members, we need to have an incident action plan similar to that which we use on the emergency scene, that defines:
- What we want to accomplish: Reduce the frequency and severity of debilitating diseases and injuries suffered by our members.
- Why we want to accomplish it: Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of nontraumatic death for firefighters. Injuries to the back and shoulder are among the top causes of serious injuries that firefighters are most likely to sustain. In addition, these have a significant negative financial impact on departments in the form of Worker’s Compensation and Disability claims.
- How we are going to accomplish it: Develop and implement a comprehensive health and wellness program and provide the fitness equipment for our members to develop and maintain a state of fitness that increases their resistance to cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal injuries.
Firefighter health and wellness is a very broad and multi-faceted subject and in this piece we’re going to tackle one component, fitness equipment for the fire station. So before you start looking at fitness equipment options for your department, take the reverse engineering approach. Begin with the end in mind.
Consider how much space is available in the fire station. Many fitness equipment vendors can better meet your needs, and even design equipment packages, if you can provide the amount of available square footage.
Also factor in how many people will be using the equipment at a given time. For example, you’ll need more than one treadmill if there are five members on duty and that’s the only piece of cardiovascular equipment that you can purchase. This is also a consideration for the wear and tear on the equipment and whether to buy a high-end, home-use device or a moderately priced commercial-grade piece of equipment.
Figure out what kind of equipment will your people be more likely to use. It doesn’t make sense to buy a stationary bike when nobody likes to cycle; the money might be better spent on an additional piece that everyone is likely to use.
And of course, know wow much your department can afford. Look not only at the initial purchase price of the equipment, but also at the “service after the sale” costs. This will include things like warranties, service-call charges, and preventive maintenance.
There is a wide variety of cardiovascular training equipment on the market including treadmills, elliptical runners, stationary bicycles, rowers and stair climbers/step machines.
For department with limited space or that have to make double duty with available space, a folding treadmill is a good option. Examples include: the Body Solid Endurance TF3i Folding Treadmill and the Verso TX3 Folding Treadmill. (Price range: $1,800-$2,300).
Don’t need to fold it up? Then there are commercial-grade stationary treadmills like the Fitnex T60 Treadmill, BH Fitness Select Series T8 Sport Treadmill, and the Endurance T10HRC Treadmill. (Price Range: $2,300-$3,500)
Elliptical machines have grown in popularity in recent years and provide more of a total-body training experience with multiple training programs including cross-training programs. Examples include: the Fitnex E55SG Elliptical, the Kettler Elyx 5 Elliptical Crosstrainer, and the Endurance E5000 Elliptical Trainer. (Price range: $1,200-$3,300)
In stationary bicycles, you have a choice between upright and recumbent models. Using a recumbent stationary bike tends to put less strain on the lower back, a consideration particularly if personnel will be using the equipment for rehabilitation from back injuries.
Upright stationary bicycles include: the Schwinn AirDyne Exercise Bike, the Stamina Indoor Cycle 1305, the Fitnex B55SG Exercise Bike, and the Body-Solid B2U Exercise Upright Bike. (Price range: $200-$950)
Recumbent Bikes include: the Fitnex R70S Recumbent Bike, the Body-Solid B3R Recumbent Exercise Bike, and the Steelflex CR1 Recumbent Bike. (Price range: $1,500-$2,500)
Stair steppers and climbers include: the Kettler Montana Dual Piston Stepper, the Avari A400-300 Programmable Stepper, the Jacobs Ladder Stairway Ultimate Stair Climber, and the BH Fitness SK8000 Stepper. (Price range: $600-$4,600)
Rowing Machines include: the Stamina Air Rower, the BodyCraft VR100 Rowing Machine, the Stamina Conversion II Recumbent Bike/Rower, and the Kettler COACH E Rowing Machine. (Price range: $300-$1,400)
Strength and endurance training
You have many options when it comes to developing muscle strength and endurance. Standard barbell, dumbbell and squat rack options can be effective, but be aware that there is evidence to suggest that improper application — such as use without proper education and training in proper techniques — can lead to acute or chronic injuries. There are many multi-station, cable-based units that are effective and possibly safer to use, especially if an individual is working out solo.
Today you can add kettle bells, medicine balls, Bosa or Swiss balls, and web-based (nylon webbing) systems that provide more movement options with moderate resistance. Education and training in the proper use ultimately is the key ingredient to long-term success regardless of your choices.
The TRX Suspension Trainer was developed by a Navy SEAL while deployed to keep his team mission-ready. It incorporates specially designed webbing that enables users to get a full-body workout using just their body weight along with a door or stationary pole.
Kettle bells are durable cast iron balls with a handle that can be used in a variety of exercises to develop total body strength, power and endurance. Firefighters can work their bodies across a wide range of angles to increase their flexibility. The off-centered weight of kettle bells increases the demand placed on core stabilization and agility; they can be used for squats, throws, cleans, jerks, snatches, rotational swings and more.
How about sandbags? Who knew they were good for more than holding back floodwaters? Sandbags are great strength and endurance training aides because they more closely resemble the types of weight that firefighters have to lift, drag and carry.
You can make them yourself or buy commercial-grade sandbags that feature closure systems with inner and outer shells that have zippers and snaps to ensure filler bags are secure; individual filler bags to provide an easy and clean way to adjust the weight; and handle options that make for mixing up grips on the bag during a workout.
“For me all I need for a comprehensive program is TRX Force kits, a pull up bar and a rack of kettle bells,” said Joletta Belton, a training specialist with NationalTacticalFitness.com. “Mats, resistance bands, and medicine balls would be good, low cost additions, too. I would also do some foam rollers and lacrosse balls for self myofascial release. Sand bag systems are good and can be made in house with duffel bags, garbage bags, and beach sand.”
Belton is a medically retired firefighter paramedic who suffered a career ending hip injury on the job.
Fitness equipment packages
Cybex is one manufacturer that can help a department to maximize their available floor space with training equipment like the Cybex 750 ARC Trainer and Cybex Bravo Functional Trainer. Both provide high-intensity interval modes that train the cardiovascular system to maintain elevated heart rates through intense fire-suppression conditions.
A department provides its available floor space and number of personnel that are likely to use the equipment at one time and Cybex bundles its Trainers and other fitness equipment such as power rack, benches and dumbbells. For example:
We frequently say, “Firefighting is a team sport,” right? Then like any good team, you have to be prepared physically to play when the opponent shows up for game day.
About the author
Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his “management sciences mechanic” credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va. Contact Robert atRobert.Avsec@FireRescue1.com