First Responders: A Fitness Emergency

September 15, 2021

It goes without saying that we rely heavily on our local emergency personnel to ensure public safety and survival in unpredictable catastrophes. Whether you've fallen down some stairs or fallen victim to a house fire, you're reaching for the phone and dialing three digits in hopes for someone to come save you. You are calling the First Responders.First Responders are any emergency response personnel that are first on scene to an accident, catastrophe, crime or emergency. They include Firefighters, Police/Law Enforcement, Paramedics and even Military Personnel. They are the first to arrive and the last to leave the scene whenever there is a crisis called in. They typically work and manage unstable environments that can be extremely taxing physically and mentally.

The demands of emergency personnel require them to be "better than the average bear". A more physically dominant and mentally tough specimen (we call them Tactical Athletes here at headquarters).There are approximately 150,000 Firefighters and 69,000 Police Officers employed across Canada (Paramedic stats are difficult as some provinces have different regulations defining a Paramedic). The average response time upon dispatch (across all 3 professions) was found to be approximately 10-15 minutes in length.

Common tactical workplace tasks were found to involve repetitive heavy lifting in awkward situations, various running/jogging tasks (includes pursuits) and emotional distress. As you can see, the task demands of First Responders are highly physical in nature and even more taxing mentally. It shouldn't come as a shock that the average lifespan for most First Responders ranges anywhere from 10-15 years LESS than normal civilians. That being said, life expectancy can definitely improve with a more concrete health and fitness mandate designed specifically for those saving our asses in the field.

Unfit For Duty?

Let's get real for a second. We've all seen a meme or two of out of shape cops hanging out at the Tim Hortons with their partners sipping coffee and shootin' the breeze. While this may get a chuckle from some, it can actually be a sad reality for most. That being said, I'm going to throw a quick disclaimer and say that NOT ALL EMERGENCY PERSONNEL ARE PATHETICALLY OUT OF SHAPE OR UNFIT FOR SERVICE. So now that we got that out of the way, let's dissect the details.

Law Enforcement, Paramedic and Firefighter Staff have set fitness standards and testing procedures in place for candidates looking to enter the work force. Testing protocols include timed tasks and stations simulating events or situations likely to occur on the job. Should candidates fail to complete their physical evaluations within the set time, they are not granted employment or the ability to volunteer.

For many candidates, demonstrating top fitness performance in their respective evaluations can be the "make or break" decision for employers.It is the competitive nature of employment in a fulfilling, well-respected (and tough) career that lead so many candidates to seek exercise professionals for assistance in physical preparation. They want to ensure they are in the best physical shape possible in order to set themselves apart from their rival peers. It's an encouraging scenario. You have eager candidates giving it their all in order to become a First Responder. If they pass, their respective associations will have found them qualified and FIT for active duty. But once that physical evaluation is deemed complete, it is never repeated again in that employee's career. This is where the issue lies.

The Harsh Reality

Once hired on, most Law Enforcement, Paramedic and Firefighter Units never re-evaluate the physical well-being of their workers. Most organizations simply encourage fitness but without a set mandate or consequence for lack of maintenance. You are simply left to your own devices and it is assumed you know what to do in order to stay fit (hey, they passed that test one time right?). Most departments have no regulation or policy that requires their officers, paramedics or firefighters to stay fit for active duty or face disciplinary action if found unfit for active duty. They don't even re-evaluate their task forces on the same test used to get hired on! It seems to me like all you need to do is be your best one time, get hired and then kick back and relax. Hey, no one is going to say anything anyway.

Now, I know many Police Officers and Firefighters personally who make it mandatory for themselves to get in the weight room and maintain their fitness. Although this reflects highly on many individuals with initiative, it speaks poorly of the organization (more so union) they work for. It's also not a direct reflection of the hired-on staff who do not take action to stay fit for duty. In my opinion, I think it's worth discussing physical preparedness with the folks in charge. I feel many would agree that tactical organizations should require fitness for emergency personnel instead of simply recommending it.

Could you imagine if the majority of civilians could outrun or out-muscle their local Law Enforcement? What if the men and women in uniform simply LOOKED fragile? I understand looks aren't everything but we can't be naive to think the intimidation factor doesn't play a crucial role when it comes to enforcing and upholding justice. If a jacked dude with a vest and aviators doesn't make you think twice about testing the law, you're kidding yourself. Being physically weak and looking (probably feeling) fragile in Law Enforcement is not the standard we should be aiming for.On the flip side, I'd be terrified if I knew the local firefighter couldn't drag my ass out of a burning building if his life (and indefinitely mine) depended on it.

Could you imagine if you fell down some stairs and the paramedic staff couldn't physically move you from the bottom? What if you suffered a serious injury on the way down and became critical? Time is the name of the game in crisis situations. The more minutes that tick by mean less for your survival.First Responders have physically and mentally demanding tasks required of them that may mean the difference between life and death. Furthermore, they need to be able to complete those tasks in unstable environments under high mental stress and wearing heavy gear. Being in better shape means being better prepared for the unpredictable. Need I say more?

Longevity and Injury

We tend to forget that First Responders are extremely susceptible to injury. It isn't uncommon for emergency personnel to suffer acute injuries during their time on duty or become physically debilitated from chronic pain. The most common injury reported across all professions was determined to be the lower back with shoulders and knees a close second.

A high percentage of these lower back injuries arose from lifting or moving heavy objects repeatedly in awkward positions. It seems that injury prevention is just as much neglected as improving overall fitness levels.Although it is impossible to prevent all injuries on the job, having a higher fitness and strength level can certainly improve your chances. If nothing else, the severity of injury is usually decreased in folks with higher strength levels. For emergency personnel, this could mean a longer career on active duty and fewer days off due to injury.

A more catered fitness program could not only help improve general fitness levels but also decrease risk of physical injury (both acute and chronic).I'm going to get heavy for a minute. It's important that we discuss the lifespan of First Responders and how fitter emergency personnel tend to live longer (typically better quality too). In the case of Firefighters, it was reported that the average lifespan is 10-15 years less than regular civilians. Not only that, they are THREE TIMES more likely to die on the job compared to other professions. For Police Officers, they averaged 21 years less and had a greater risk of mortality on the job (I'm assuming the environmental hazards they found to be responsible were bullets).This data reinforces what we already know: you are at a higher risk of injury or death as a First Responder. This includes active duty AND retirement.

A large contributor to mortality was physical injury, stress and obesity. Regular fitness training will not only ensure better task completion on duty but ensure the fine folks in uniform can clock out in good condition as well.

In Closing

Emergency personnel are responsible for some of the most dangerous and stressful tasks. Society as a whole couldn't function without the brave men and women who serve us through their respective positions. It's extremely important that candidates and active duty personnel make time to maintain their health and fitness. Not only is this important for their jobs but for their own well being and quality of life. I think it's important that we make fitness a topic of conversation for Tactical Athletes and the organizations/unions they represent.

Lastly, I wish to tip my hat to all those who serve and protect us. I think I speak for everyone when I say your service doesn't go unnoticed. A huge kudos to those First Responders who make it a priority to maintain or improve their own health and fitness. You are the ones who can help make a difference for the future. Talk to your supervisors, committee leaders or board members. Make fitness and health a topic for conversation. With time, change can happen and improvements can be made.