Surviving the Fire Service

I didn’t know at the age of 4 that I wanted to be a firefighter. In fact, I didn’t start my career in the fire service until the very ripe old age of 33. In the interim years between 4 and 33, I graduated from high school, college and finally grad school with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology. I became a successful full-time professional strength and conditioning coach and I traveled the country presenting continuing education to fitness professionals. My life was magical, but eventually I figured out that benefits and paid time off were cool, so I buckled down, went to EMT and medic school, and started testing for the fire service. I did get hired and now 15 years of that career have elapsed. I’m still fighting fires and still coaching. I have the very best of both worlds and for that I’m grateful.

Along the way, I’ve developed a personal philosophy that fitness is a sliding scale spectrum and that everyone should be on the spectrum but is not required to be at the same place. It’s occurred to me that my way isn’t the only way, nor is it the perfect way. I get amazing results with my clients, but there are a lot of other coaches that get amazing results as well and do nothing close to what I do. I’ve realized that running a marathon doesn’t equate to healthy and competing in a bodybuilding show doesn’t equal the pinnacle of fitness success.

I explain the spectrum to my coaching clients in the following way: near one end we have the business man or woman that subsists on a steady diet of breakfast triple lattes, lunch at a fast food and dinner out with clients at a steakhouse; washed down with a bottle of wine. They lack sleep, movement, stress relief and healthy and reasonable level of fuel intake. They’re not doing much right. Near the other end of the spectrum we have the professional fitness model that meticulously tracks sleep, water intake, grams of macronutrients and trains their body RELIGIOUSLY to sculpt it into the perfect aesthetic proportions. They are so dialed in with their health and nutrition that it sometimes becomes an unhealthy obsession.

Neither end of the spectrum necessarily equals HEALTHY. Somewhere in the middle between the extremes is loosely where the general population and the firefighting force needs to live in order to be at their very best.

I believe that my friend Jorge Carvajal put it best: “We don’t need to be fit to fight fires. We need to be fit to survive the fire service.” Clearly there are a lot of men and women out there getting the job done when it looks like there should be no way they could possibly perform. Their obesity and injury statistics don’t overpower their ability to pull a ceiling or advance a hose line. But the price they pay day in and day out is a credit line that eventually must be paid back. Payback time is usually at retirement—if they make it that far.

“We don’t need to be fit to fight fires. We need to be fit to survive the fire service.” Jorge Carvajal

My background enables me to bring a unique perspective to firefighter fitness and wellness. During my own life journey, I’ve developed a deep passion for helping firefighters improve their quality of life. I’d say I have a vested interest in helping them be their best both at work and away from work. Let’s face it, we put our bodies through hell in order to get the job done. Climbing 100 feet of ladder with an additional 50-75# pounds on our frame is less than optimal. Wearing a SCBA while trying to complete even simple tasks would crush a normal human. Day after day we get the job done, but at what cost? Unfortunately, many firefighters are broken at the time they retire. And that’s if they get to retire with their full complement of years of service and walk out the door on their own terms. Way too many of us go out on an early disability due to a traumatic accident or cardiovascular disease.

Statistically speaking, over 70% of firefighters are overweight or obese (Fahy RF, LeBlanc PR, Molis JL. Firefighter fatalities in the United States — 2005. National Fire Protection Association. Fire Analysis and Research Division; 2006.) In addition, firefighters are injured at astounding rates with shoulder, knee and low back being the most common injuries sustained.

Firefighters, by their very nature, are decisive. They quickly take stock of a situation, analyze it and act—sometimes putting their own life on the line to save another. They are strong willed, determined type A personalities and they exude confidence. They are opinionated and eager to express those opinions early and often. Their way is often the ONLY way. A firefighter’s personality often does not let them see that 3+3 is not the only way to arrive at a sum of 6. They discount 2+4 completely and don’t even consider -7 + 1. So why then, when it comes to their own physical fitness, do so many firefighters falter?

I assert that too many of them utilize the Annette Zapp of youth method. I believed in magic and hoped for fantastic things to happen. I never did very much to reach any of those fantastic goals. But I hear the same thing from many adult clients now too. There are way too many utterances of “I wish I could lose 15#” or “I hope I can stick to this workout program”. I hear very few statements about plans, commitment and execution.

Additionally, like the average American, the firefighter is inundated with fitness information, much of it partially or completely false and all of it contradictory. Flip on any television station or look at the newspaper or an issue of a popular fitness magazine. Each one will provide information and opinions on the best way to succeed. Often, that information doesn’t align from various sources and even from the same source when compared from one month’s issue or episode to the next. While standing in line at the grocery store last week, I learned, much to my surprise as a Biochemist, that my hormone receptors were (gasp) DIRTY! And that I needed at 72-hour detox to clean them. Wait. What?

The list of work that needs to be done is daunting. Most firefighters need to lose significant body fat, gain or at a minimum, maintain skeletal muscle mass, eat properly for their physical and mental health, get enough sleep, better manage stress, take appropriate nutritional supplements, improve mobility, tidy up their blood chemistry profiles and that’s only a partial list. It’s no wonder that when a clear path is not readily evident that many choose to do either nothing or embark on an ineffective protocol, get no instant positive results and subsequently give up. Further, they have now become an expert on what doesn’t work and pass that information on readily and loudly to everyone that will listen further discouraging others from taking decisive action.

I’ve often heard the argument “we all die from something”, “Nobody makes it out of this life alive” or “XY worked out every day and ate healthy and got cancer anyway, what’s the point?” Or my personal favorite “that Jim Fixx guy jogged every day of his life and still died young from a heart attack.”

Jim Fixx didn’t take up jogging until he was in his mid-thirties. He was a heavy smoker prior to embarking on his fitness journey and had a father that died of a heart attack at the age of 43 after a previous heart attack at 35. An autopsy revealed that Fixx had at least two coronary arteries blocked almost completely and a third blocked by 50%. However, despite his strong family history of heart disease, he didn’t seek out regular medical care. Regular medical care which would have likely resulted in treatment for his preexisting cardiac condition.

So, no, Fixx did not run every day of his life. He likely extended his life by actively adding good habits and crowding out poor habits starting in his 30s. This is of course hotly debated and unlikely to ever be settled.

The point is THIS: you OWE it to yourself, your family, and most certainly to your co-workers to be in your top condition possible given your unique set of circumstances. When firefighters have a bad day, people get hurt…or worse. You don’t have the luxury of being subpar. Get rid of that attitude once and for all. Create a new attitude—one of empowerment and health. Survive the Fire Service!

Take a good long look at yourself. Are you doing the best you can of taking care of you?

If you need help, I’m here.

Coach AZ