The Current Physical Fitness Policy

The most current injury data shows that the total number of injuries has decreased from 2000 (implementation of the IAFF/IAFC Wellness-Fitness Program) to 2007 by 25%.  The reductions of injuries are directly related to the implementation of the many elements of the Wellness-Fitness Program (currently known as the Fitness for Life Program).

                                                            Chart 1

As described in Volume2, Chapter 7, Subject 10 of, participation in the on-duty exercise program is mandatory for all safety personnel. This policy defines participation as “stretching, approved cardiovascular conditioning, and strength conditioning.” The present Fitness program was implemented in 1999 as part of the IAFF/IAFC Wellness-Fitness Initiative (now known as the Fitness for Life Program). Among the goals of the program are to improve the health and physical performance of firefighters and to reduce the risk of on-duty injury by improving physical fitness. A strong case for the justification of the significant cost of implementing and maintaining the program was based on the expectation that an improved level of fitness and health awareness would ultimately result in a substantial reduction in time lost due to preventable injuries and early discovery of treatable health problems. The resulting savings in worker compensation, salary backfill, and medical procedure costs, would exceed the cost of the program. As with all components of Firefighter training, only the most effective and safest methods of physical training are advocated. On-duty exercise time, equipment, and instructional resources are provided.

Through a loose interpretation of the policy, participation in competitive team sports has become a common substitute for more the appropriate Firefighter conditioning exercises. Activities such, as basketball, volleyball, floor hockey, softball, racquetball, tennis, etc., do not provide the comprehensive and specific fitness firefighters need, and more significantly, have been shown to be responsible for an alarmingly high incidence of injury. 

The total incidence of injury incurred by participation in physical training has remained fairly consistent from 2000-2007 and comprises approximately 13-16% of all injury claims. However, the percentage of these physical training injuries due to participation in team sports has increased steadily and they are now responsible for 30% of all physicals training injuries. Basketball alone is responsible for 25% of all physical training injuries. (For more information see injury data attachment)

                                                            Chart 2

While there will be injuries when performing any fitness routine, the goal must be to identify and eliminate those activities most prone to cause firefighter injury, while allowing those that give the most benefit.   

Data from the sports medicine community indicate that ankle injuries make up approximately 25% of all sports injuries and one estimate reports an injury rate of 1.0 injury per 1000 hours of physical training. Studies looking specifically at basketball have shown an injury rate of 3.8 injuries per 1,000 participations and 45% of these resulted in an inability to compete for 1 week or more, with the average time being 2.2 weeks.

For the sake of comparing assume that our average 42 yr. old FF is equally as prone to injury as these young competitive recreational athletes.  Therefore, if everyone on one shift (approximately 1000 people) plays competitive basketball for one hour, you can expect 3.85 ankle injuries.  If these injured participants are put off duty for 2.2 weeks (the average time for ankle injuries), that would result in 8.5 weeks of total lost time.  Multiplying 8.5 by the average weekly salary and including the overtime for backfilling, plus all medical treatment expenses associated it is likely that basketball-related ankle injuries are responsible for several hundred thousand dollars of injury-related costs per year. Furthermore, it has been reported that 73% of athletes incurring an ankle injury, will have a recurrence and 59% will have a significant disability. The possibility that a simple, relatively mild ankle sprain is laying the groundwork for a subsequent, more serious and career threatening injury, should not be ignored. 

Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Investment

The Los Angeles County Fire Department has been instrumental in improving fitness in the fire service since the 1950s.  In the 1960s Assistant Chief Harvey Anderson created the American fire service’s first mandatory fitness program.  Chief Anderson often said, “we’re all going to die eventually, so we should work to be fit and healthy until we do expire.”  His desire to improve the service we provide to the citizens we serve through fitness has endured even until today.  Our department has a long history as a pioneer and groundbreaker in firefighter health and fitness promotion programs. It is universally well respected in the fire service and has served as a role model for many departments. Its strong commitment to its goals is clearly demonstrated by the vast amount of resources provided which include:

  1. Annual Medical Exam – The purpose of the exam is to provide medical and fitness related information to all personnel so that they can track all physiological changes and identify if the FF is at risk for any life-threatening medical condition or if there is a need for fitness related counseling to get them on track. The costs are:
  2. $2,000,000 annually for the Wellness medicals for all safety members.
    1. $550 for the comprehensive medical exam per employee.
    1. $500 for the Cardiac Cat Scan per employee.
    1. $1500 for the Cardiac EBA Scan per employee.

2.   Peer Fitness Trainers (PFT) – PFTs provide fitness counseling and design programs for all members of the department (both civilian and uniform).  Each PFT is trained to create exercise programs aimed at reducing injury and increasing performance.  They also provide hands-on fitness instruction for the entire workforce annually and are part of the teaching cadre at recruit training.  Additionally, they are available for individual fitness counseling and instruction.  The costs associated with keeping these trainers certified and up to date is a follow;  

  • $75,000 on initial PFT training for approximately 100 fitness trainers.
  • $20,000 per year to maintain trainer certifications.

3.   Station Fitness Equipment – Each administrative site outfitted with aerobic, muscular strength and core strengthening equipment.

  • $1,000,000 for the initial fitness complement (approx. $5,000 per station)
  • $250,000 for the 2007 treadmill purchase-60 total
  • $125,000 Division treadmill Purchases-approximately 30 total
  • $125,000 Division elliptical / step mill purchases-approximately 30 total

4.   Educational Resources and Instruction – The FFL and Health Programs staff provide 12 hours of fitness and wellness education annually.  This education comes in the form or nine hours of online and three-hour hands-on training in both fitness and health-related topics as well as personal PFT instruction at the worksite.

Role Models for Change

If this fundamental cultural change is to be successful it must be enforced and adhered to from the top down.  As leaders, we must make sure that all members participate in a regular fitness program that is safe as well as effective for all firefighters.  Mandatory participation is expected from all uniformed personnel, including all of our chief officers. Voluntary non-compliance at any level is counterproductive to achieving both personal and department-wide fitness goals.  The roles and responsibilities stated in the current policy provide clear direction:

  1. All Safety Members:
    • Shall participate in each on-duty shift or as designated by each section head.
    • Those not able to participate, if required, shall submit a written memorandum through channels to the respective Deputy Fire Chief.
  2. Captain:
    1. Shall notify their Battalion Chief, each shift, of those individuals not participating in the Physical Fitness Program and the reason for nonparticipation.
    1. If a memorandum has been requested by the Battalion Chief, the on-duty Captain shall review the memo adding any appropriate comments before forwarding.
  3. Battalion Chiefs / Section Heads
  4. Shall designate exercise days and times for assigned 40- hour personnel.
  5. Shall monitor personnel participation.
  6. Shall exercise periodically with assigned personnel to ensure continued participation, progress, and account­ ability.
  7. Shall require a written memorandum from non-participating personnel; through channels, if abstinence exceeds two consecutive shifts or three shifts in a. given calendar month.  Memorandum to be submitted immediately if physical impairment would prohibit an individual from participation.
  8. Assistant Fire Chief:
  9. Shall be responsible for program implementation.
  10. Shall take appropriate action, including disciplinary procedures, on all memorandums received from non- participating personnel.
  11. Shall approve all off-site exercise locations for assigned personnel.

The current fitness policies are seldom followed but must be adhered to if the Fitness for Life program is to continue to achieve its goal of preventing work-related injuries and increasing firefighter fitness.  Many times the firefighter most in need of physical training does little or no training.  Because these firefighters do not train they are at a much greater risk for injury.  To correct this we must rally together and mandate (as the policy directs) that all firefighters exercise regularly in a safe and effective manner.    

What is the new policy?

The new policy specifically forbids team sports as a form of exercise.  While this will not be a popular decision, the case has been made that many injuries occur because of the use of these exercise adjuncts.  They are neither as effective nor are they as safe as the controlled alternative of the individual or circuit based fitness training programs that focus on cardiovascular and muscular fitness performance goals and not on how well you play a game.  The new policy states the following;

  • Station personnel shall not participate in team sports in lieu of, or in addition to the Department’s Exercise Program of stretching, strength and cardiovascular conditioning. Team sports include, but are not limited to basketball, football, volleyball, softball, baseball, racquetball, tennis, paddle tennis and any other game or sport that could cause possibly cause an injury to occur.

What is the goal of the new policy?

The compelling data shows that widespread participation in team sports has resulted in injury rates that have moved the department further away from achieving the Fitness for Life Program goals.  Due to this, the policy has been modified to include abolishing participation in team sports while on duty and this facet must be strictly enforced.

While it is acknowledged that this policy will be met with a degree of disappointment by many, and it is hoped that these same individuals can look beyond their personal preferences and consider the benefits of applying the safest and most effective physical training methods. Every other component of a firefighter’s training must meet this criterion, and physical training is not an exception. It is hoped that these individuals will focus on the provisions and accomplishments of the program in its entirety and take pride in being a part of its success.