WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Not only is being a firefighter one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, it is also one of the top three physically demanding career fields. To ensure the physical demands of a firefighter are being met, the 788th Civil Engineer Squadron’s fire department is revving up their peer fitness program.
A program that has been in place for a little over ten years, the fire department’s peer fitness program provides one-on-one fitness training to fire fighters by fire firefighters. Currently there are 13 certified trainers but the department is doubling that number.
Created from a partnership between the International Association of Firefighters and the International Association of Fire chiefs, the peer fitness program was created to improve fire fighters quality of life.
“The idea is to improve the health and well-being of our fire fighters,” said Jacob King, 788th CEG fire chief. “The nature of our job is very rigorous and stressful and, we have to have the full capability to perform along with being in the right physical shape to reduce injuries. In addition, exercise helps reduce stress and how we deal with it.”
Certified by the American Council on Exercise, King said that although the trainers will receive the same training and certification identical to trainers who work at fitness centers, they will also be trained specifically to work with the physical requirements of a firefighter.
To become certified, trainers are required to complete 80 hours of online coursework and five days of in-class instruction. To maintain certification, trainers are also required to take continuing education courses throughout the year.
Kevin Lairson, 788th CEG assistant chief, oversees the health and safety programs for the fire department, said one of the benefits with the peer fitness program is that each firefighter has a personalized fitness plan and trainers will work with them one-on-one to ensure their fitness goals are met.
“There are 13 standard job functions that a firefighter must be able to perform,” said King. “We have to be able to lift 150 pounds chest high, carry 50 pounds for a distance and ensure our blood pressure, heart rate, hearing and vision are all good. And when we gear up, we have to be able to operate with about 75 pounds of equipment on.”
In addition to the physical strength, firefighters also require the cardio stamina for sudden up and down spikes in heart rate during intense physical demands.
“We could be at a resting heart rate sleeping, but once we receive a call, we are out the bed and out the door within minutes, causing sudden spikes in our heart rates,” said Brian Grubb, firefighter and president of the International Association of Firefighters Local F88 Union of Professional Firefighters of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
King added that cardiac arrest and stroke is the leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths.
“We took a pretty significant step when we looked at this program and how important it was for our firefighters,” said King. “Having in-house fitness trainers, they can maximize their time and enhance their capability and because the trainer is a firefighter, they already know all the aspects and demands of the job. Thanks to Mike Howe, 88th Air Base Wing Civil Engineer Director and the 788th CEG commander, Maj. Tyler Johnson, they both saw the importance and invested in our strategies to help improve the quality of life for our firefighters. Without them, this would not happen.”
The fire department employs approximately 91 staff members comprised of firefighters, inspectors, paramedics and dispatchers, and are assigned at one of the three fire stations on the installation. The additional trainers will allow coverage at all three stations during all shifts.
In addition to the peer fitness program, in 2018, the fire department introduced a peer support program. Firefighters participated in a two-day post-traumatic stress disorder/peer support program to learn how to support their counterparts when that person may not want to talk to the typical outlets such as a chaplain or supervisor.
“This is inherently a physically dangerous job, and so we are possibly faced with physical ailments such as bad knees, bad hips, loss of hearing or eyesight,” said King. “We want to make sure when our firefighters retire, they are physically able to enjoy their lives with their family after years of dedicating their own lives serving others.”