The Fire Ninja Blog: the importance of staying fit for firefighters
on 29 May, 2013

As a young boy, I remember an event at my elementary school where the local fire department showed up with their shiny red trucks and laid out all of their fancy tools. As a collective group we ‘ohed  and aahhed’ at all the cool equipment and we quite literally stood around looking up to these larger than life heroes that had committed their lives to protecting ours. But I also distinctly remember that on that day, there was a huge firefighter that had been driving the engine. As a kid, all of these burly guys must have seemed large to me, but the driver/operator stood out as obese to me even from a child’s perspective.

I remember him struggling to get out of the driver’s seat. I remember him hanging back from the other guys during the presentation, and I remember him panting in the sun as he shuffled to get into his turnout pants. I had a distinctly clear memory of wondering to myself: That guy can barely get in and out of the fire truck, how would he ever be able to help me if I needed to be rescued?’

Fast forward several years and I’d worked my way through EMT school and the Fire Academy and was attempting to get hired on with my first paid department. I interviewed at several departments and had the opportunity to tour all of their fire halls. One in particular stood out. The Chief was obese, the Assistant Chief was obese and even the Station Captain that I met weighed well over 300 pounds. It was a well-respected department and the salary was equivalent to several other departments that I’d researched. But I left that meeting that day having made up my mind that I wanted nothing to do with their department.

So let’s get right down to it now that I’ve tip-toed around my topic. In our society this is a delicate and complicated issue involving multiple layers of political correctness, personal body image conflicts and ‘eating disorder’ diagnoses. But my argument is that it should not be that way in the fire service. At the beginning of my career I took a solemn oath to save lives and protect property. The day that I am not physically or mentally fit to perform those tasks, I will hang up my helmet for the last time.

That’s how serious I take it, because to me, I realise the stakes at hand and feel honor bound to uphold them. I take immense pride in the fact that part of my daily activity is the unspoken promise to lay my life down for a complete stranger if the need arises. If I am not physically capable of performing my duties, then I have no business getting paid to fill the position.

A firefighter’s job and work description has been detailed and outlined, so there is little excuse to validate any less than what is commonly expected, but let’s boil it all down to a simple statement, a simple rescue scenario and then I will offer a comparative analogy to highlight my point.

A two-story single family home is on fire and a 24 foot extension ladder needs to be deployed to the 2nd story bedroom window where a screaming child can be seen waving frantically for help. (Insert your own children here for effect ). If the firefighter that responds to that emergency is too fat to climb the ladder and save the child, what business does he have calling himself a firefighter? Or for that matter, accepting the salary that he receives for the position?

A bakery owner has an open position and puts an advertisement out for a baker. He interviews a candidate that was born with no arms, and decides to give him a shot as the new baker. Every day, the new baker comes in with a great attitude, exceptional drive and unparalleled optimism, but at the end of the day there are no baked goods because he’s got no arms. Does the bakery owner keep him on because of his spirit? Even when he’s physically incapable of performing the job that’s expected of him? Have we reached an unspoken level of political correctness as a culture that we would rather run the bakeryout of business than identify that the poor guy just can’t do the job?

My analogy is an exaggerated example and is intended as such. It’s an attempt to over-simplify what to me is already a simple concept. If you can’t physically perform the job that you are getting paid to perform, then you have no business working in that role. But as a baker, no one is going to die if you have no cupcakes at the end of the day. Can we say the same thing in the fire industry?

Adding to the complexity of this discussion is the municipal concept of most modern fire departments. By definition, these firefighters are public servants, accepting salaries that are directly taken from taxes provided by their respective communities. Therefore, if I am a tax-paying citizen and I see a firefighter that is not physically fit enough to perform his job, aren’t I witnessing a violation of trust? Not to mention a misappropriation of public funds?

In my current role, I am forced by modern convention as much as the next guy to be politically correct in all aspects of my job, but to me personally, as a firefighter; I have no patience for the soft-hearted approach to this issue. A firefighter that is unfit cannot save my life, but even more heart wrenching, is that a fat firefighter might not be able to save the life of my daughter, if she’s the one screaming for help at the window.

Blogs are opinion forums and this is mine. In our industry, we are constantly being held to a higher standard. Why don’t we hold ourselves to that higher standard? Why don’t we institute annual physical fitness testing to verify that we are prepared to do what we’re being paid for? Imagine the effect that would have on Line of Duty Deaths, insurance premiums and long-term healthcare costs. But even more importantly, why as a culture can’t we get behind this philosophy and support the men and women that vow to sacrifice their lives for us?

At the end of the day, I’m not just a guy picking on fat firefighters. This whole thing means so much more to me. As I pointed out earlier, this is a multi-faceted issue and because of that, the onus of responsibility rests at many different feet.

As firefighters we should consider our personal fitness as relevant and as mandatory as checking our apparatus each day. A dull ax is not prepared to meet its objective.

As fire officers we should enforce the need for continuous physical fitness in both our training objectives and in the personal lives of the staff we oversee. Table top drills are a valuable planning evolution, but moving props around a model does not prepare our bodies to perform.

As tax-payers we should insist that our interests are being best served by the people that are being paid to protect them. But we should also understand that fitness needs to be a key element of the position and therefore will require additional attention, expense and monitoring.

Politicians should buy into the fitness strategy and support it on all fronts. Budgeting for preventive maintenance on apparatus makes perfect sense. Why don’t we see it that way when it comes to personal health and fitness?

But as I try to instill in the minds of the men that I work with, the entire issue must begin in YOUR mind, and you should ask yourself:  AM I FIT TO PERFORM THIS JOB?

The Fire Ninja

  • Operation Florian

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