The Case for Annual Physical Exams in the Fire Service

Issue 7 and Volume 5.

It’s day one of your recruit class: 25 young men and women fill the classroom dressed in their pressed, navy blue uniform pants, polished black boots and red T-shirts. Suddenly, the recruit class coordinator enters the room and pulls out six of your fellow classmates for failing to abide by the designated dress code. The recruits immediately make the necessary modifications and return to the class. They know that attention to detail is an absolute necessity.

Over the next 15 weeks, the class is reduced to 23, and several recruits are put on probation due to academic or physical shortcomings. The recruits endure the rigors of daily PT sessions, including miles of track time, stair climbs, push-ups, hose pulls, bear crawls and sit-ups, along with hours of classroom instruction, weekly written evaluations, hands-on demonstrations, practical evolutions and scenario-based testing. Any failure along the way is followed by remedial instruction and strict requirements to demonstrate mental and physical competencies. Anyone incapable of meeting the established academic and/or physical standards is deemed unqualified for the designation of firefighter and is immediately released from the class.

In many fire departments throughout the country, this describes the journey we endure to become line firefighters. But fast-forward 5, 10 or 15 years and consider, what standards are in place for you as a line firefighter or company officer serving in this same department? Are the physical and academic demands the same? Are you required to demonstrate your mental and physical competence in the same fashion you were at the beginning of your career? If not, why not?

Disturbingly, a recent study published by Harvard researchers showed that up to 40 percent of firefighters nationwide are overweight and, as a result, they have a much higher risk of suffering a heart attack on the job than the general population. Yet many fire departments don’t require annual physicals or fitness tests beyond the ones required when a new recruit is hired.

The job of a firefighter is no less strenuous, nor is it less hazardous, as we become more seasoned/experienced; in fact, I would argue it actually becomes more hazardous and more strenuous as our bodies age and our responsibilities increase. So why do so many of us oppose mandatory fitness requirements, medical screenings, drug screenings and skills evaluations that will not only ensure our readiness, but also identify our deficiencies before they become life-threatening? Is it a fear of failure? Is it a fear of losing our jobs? Although all of these are certainly possibilities, so too is the possibility of severe injury or death to you or your crew.

In 2009, 82 firefighters died in the line of duty, 35 of whom died from sudden cardiac events. Even more disturbing: 19 of those 35 firefighters had pre-existing medical conditions, including eight who had been diagnosed or treated for heart problems (prior heart attacks, bypass surgery or angioplasty/stent placement).

The trend of sudden cardiac events in the fire service is not new, nor is there a quick fix for it. Yet our continued resistance to mandated physical requirements and diagnostic screenings is making the problem worse.

For the last 20 years, the fire service has made great strides in improving safety—enhanced personal protective equipment, design standards for new tools, technology that allows us to understand fire behavior, etc.  

The final piece of the safety puzzle is in the hands of the end users—you and your crew. As firefighters, we boast that not everyone is made to be a firefighter; not everyone can do our job. Firefighters are without question a special breed, but we are also products of our environment. We are not invincible, and we are not without weaknesses and limitations. To be part of the select few requires a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice.

It’s no secret that a lot of firefighters and officers believe that the next generation of firefighters lacks the values and work ethic of previous generations, or that they haven’t learned the discipline associated with the traditions of the job. It’s not uncommon to hear that these younger firefighters carry a sense of “entitlement” for things they haven’t earned.

We might turn that same criticism back on ourselves. Yes, we proved ourselves and initially earned the rank we hold. But such entitlement comes with term limits. If we can’t pass an annual, minimum physical fitness test, if we haven’t kept up with the basic skills needed on the fireground, aren’t we, too, demonstrating a sense of entitlement for something we haven’t earned?

It goes without saying that we must demand the best of our recruits, and this includes strict physical and mental training with detailed performance standards. But we must also ensure that we, too, are fit for duty. Fifteen weeks of training is a formidable foundation for success, but it’s certainly not enough to sustain us for a career.