Comparing firefighters’ ‘standard’ exercise vs. immersion training

Research shows the physiological impacts of training in realistic conditions to prepare the body for the job


Like many firefighters across the nation, you know the importance of exercise, staying in shape, proper hydration and a healthy balanced diet. But how do you express this knowledge?

Maybe you find yourself in an individual exercise program or platoon workouts. Maybe it’s more likely to find yourself sitting around on the recliner, knowing that you’d like to make a change but procrastinating. Perhaps you’re the firefighter preaching what other should be doing from the couch or even dismissing how others are improving themselves.

I hope you relate most to the first group, but if not, that’s OK; this article is intended for all firefighters, fire instructors, fire officers and physical training instructors.

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Firefighter physical exercise/training

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle allows us to be our best selves in the highly stressful and competitive arena of firefighting. Physical exercise, proper hydration, good diet and a positive mental attitude combine to provide an optimal performance when the people whom we took an oath to serve need us on their worst days.           

Unfortunately, little is known about which type of physical exercise or training is best for the body to perform well on the fireground – strength, cardio, endurance, etc.

Training can be broken down into two groups:

1. Standard physical exercise, such as using weights at the gym or running: Physical training programs vary department to department. Some departments have no standards for getting hired or accepted. Others conduct physical testing throughout the academies or probation periods. Some departments require individuals to pass the Candidate Physical Agility Test (CPAT) to get accepted. Then when the individual gets into an academy, they have various physical workouts in addition to functional training to get the basics leading up to live-fire training.

Once a cadet leaves the academy, it is up to them to maintain a healthy lifestyle where little to no live fire training is performed. It is all too easy to lose sight of a healthy lifestyle without having a regimented system like the fire training academy.

For those firefighters who do manage to maintain a regular workout regimen, that’s great! However, does this level of activity prepare them for the rigors of the incident scene?

[Read next: 7 reasons for annual firefighter physical tests]

2. Functional training in full PPE with proper tools: Training in gear can go one step further and be performed while consuming air and simulating functions that would be performed on a fireground. This type of physical training – performing skill sets under live-fire conditions in a more stressful situation with high heat and low visibility – best simulates real-life conditions. The effects on the body during live-fire training go beyond that of standard physical exercise, adding stress to body. But very little time is spent training under live-fire conditions.

So, how do the exercise and training programs we are accustomed to using compare to more functional training that simulates real fireground environments? We must look at scientific proof of what is best for the body when performing on the fireground.

There are many variables and stressors that affect the body when actively fighting a fire. Let’s look at the physiological response to firefighters in temperate conditions and the response in extreme temperature conditions, in other words, the body's response to standard exercise or training versus that in high-heat, low-visibility conditions.

Research sheds light on firefighter training

In a study conducted in Germany, flashover or near-flashover conditions were used to simulate high-heat, low-visibility and more stressful conditions for tracking firefighters’ physiological responses.

Firefighters performed tasks that would be similar to training without gear (treadmill and strength), with gear but no fire conditions, and lastly, under fire conditions such as a flashover. A container was used to create the flashover conditions and to represent an enclosed space, like a room or floor of a building. The study identified the contribution of strength and endurance capacities to firefighting performance when the demand of the firefighting exercise changes.

There are not many studies, especially within the United States, that address physical fitness relative to firefighting activity in this manner. Furthermore, those studies that have been conducted looked at the physiological effects on the body during simulated firefighting exercise, not the environmental stressors of extreme temperatures that a firefighter would encounter in real life. Fortunately, the research out of Germany provides data, information and results to draw conclusions related to how to compare the different types of training.

The testing was broken into several categories in order to analyze the various effects on firefighters. Treadmill testing allowed researchers to get baseline data to determine several health factors, such as oxygen uptake, heart rate and respiratory exchange. Three zones were established based on that data.

Firefighting performance was determined from a model developed to take into account exercise completion time, heart rate and air depletion from the SCBA. Correlation or relationships were established to firefighting performance and fitness variables representing strength and endurance.

All participants completed four tests on four different days to evaluate the differences in firefighters’ physiological responses with and without extreme heat.

The test conducted without heat would be comparable to that of CPAT. The test conducted under intense heat would closely simulate tasks performed during actual firefighting operations.

Study results

A snapshot of the study results:

  • Heart rate was significantly lower during firefighting exercise with and without gear compared to firefighting exercises in live fire flashover type conditions.
  • Oxygen uptake had the highest relationship between the two types of exercises.
  • There were significant differences related to time spent in the physiological intensity zones. Specifically, more time was spent in the higher zones during live-fire conditions whereas heart rates stayed in the lower zones under no heat exercises.
  • There was a significant difference between the heart rate recovery. Specifically, heart rates remained elevated after fire condition training whereas after non-fire training, the heart rate decreased to baseline values.

It is important to note that it was difficult to determine whether the physiological strain was the result of physical demands or heat stress from the environment or a combination of both. Also, dehydration and mental stress can contribute to induced elevated heart rates.           

Simply put, firefighting in extreme temperatures do not compare to that of firefighting in temperate conditions. In other words, functional training with or without gear does not have the same impact on the body as fighting fires. In addition, endurance training is an important prerequisite for both, and maintaining a high level of fitness is required for exercises in extreme temperatures.

Fire department fitness programs

Proper physical training to adapt to extreme temperatures is important. Training appropriately will enhance the body’s physiological effects, allowing firefighters to perform better and reduce stressors and, ultimately operate in a safer and healthier manner for the individual and teams. As such, we need to reassess where we are as a firefighting culture in the United States in terms of physical activity and how we can improve moving forward.

Departments must consider how to incorporate not just physical fitness but also standard training in gear and in those high-stress, high-heat, low-visibility atmospheres within controlled environments. Providing a cross-training system of workout programs, workouts in gear and functional fitness in gear, thus building into actively fighting fire, will set firefighters up for success. The physical activity programs should include endurance training, as it was found to be essential to firefighter health, and focus on recovery heart rates within the endurance training. Establish baseline parameters that will allow firefighters to obtain high oxygen intake and to work in heart rate zones to maximize firefighting performance.

Living a healthy lifestyle with proper physical firefighting training should help you to have a long, safe, healthy and successful career as a firefighter.

Train hard, train smart and have fun!

Note: All physical training should be conducted in a controlled and safe environment by participants who have been medically cleared to do so.

Reference

Windisch, Stephanie, et al. “Physiological Responses to Firefighting in Extreme Temperatures Do Not Compare to Firefighting in Temperate Conditions.” Frontiers in Physiology, Vol. 8, 2017, doi:10.3389/fphys.2017.00619.

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