I’ve been consulting with fire departments to help improve their firefighters’ health for quite a few years. One common issue is confusion about the difference between a firefighter physical abilities test, a fitness test and a physical, and why firefighters need/can benefit from all three of these things.
So today, I’m going to clear up that confusion. Then next week, I’m going to outline for you exactly what is needed in a comprehensive, effective Wellness program for firefighters, including how to meet the NFPA 1583 standard on health related fitness programs for fire department members.
Firefighter Physical Assessments Explained
The Firefighter Physical Ability Test
You’re probably familiar with a Firefighter Physical Ability Test, or Physical Agility Test. It involves firefighting job tasks such as pulling hose, climbing a ladder, etc. Some departments use the CPAT while others create their own courses. Some departments only require that a firefighter pass the test at the beginning of his career while others do the test yearly.
What this test tells you is whether or not the firefighter can perform the job.
What this test does not tell you (although it may be obvious) is whether or not he can consistently do the job safely.
Firefighter Fitness Test
A yearly firefighter fitness test is recommended by the NFPA. It assesses firefighters’ in the 5 components of fitness: body composition, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and aerobic capacity (VO2max). This would involve push-ups, a treadmill endurance test, etc.
A fitness test on a firefighter can be the same as any fitness test with one exception: the VO2max test should be firefighter specific. Making the test more representative of your job (than the running or stepping tests) makes it much more effective at evaluating whether you are aerobically fit enough to do your job without over-exerting your cardiovascular system and having a heart attack. For this purpose I created a scientifically validated firefighter VO2max test that you can do at your stations (and I plan to teach you all how to do it!)
This test helps evaluate if the firefighter can do the job safely. By measuring his strengths, weaknesses and the fitness component that can predict his risk for heart attack (VO2max), you can assess his risk for hurting himself or his crew members (it also tells the firefighter a lot about her health and risk of developing disease.)
What this test does not assess is firefighting skill. This is important to acknowledge because research shows that veteran firefighters can perform tasks more efficiently. Therefore, being more skilled can make up for a lower fitness level. This means you should assess both skill and physical fitness of the firefighter.
The Firefighter Medical Physical
A medical physical is recommended by the NFPA. Since firefighters are at increased risk of developing heart disease, cancers and other illnesses, they should regularly be assessed by a physician who is familiar with firefighting, ideally annually or at least every 2-3 years.
A firefighter’s blood work alone can provide a ton of insight into his risk for heart attack. Research shows that almost all of firefighters who suffer fatal cardiac events on duty possess one or more of the risk factors for heart disease – and two of these are identified in a typical blood panel: cholesterol and blood glucose. Markers of inflammation and cancerous growths can also be identified in the blood.
It is very important that firefighters monitor their blood pressure since being hypertensive increases the risk for dying of a duty related heart attack 12 times. Seeing a physician who can prescribe hypertension medication if necessary could save a firefighter’s life.
Either the VO2max test in the fitness assessment or the medical physical can include stress testing with an EKG, which can identify arrhythmias and cardiac conditions that could be fatal for firefighters.
The benefits are many and varied
So you can see that these three assessments measure different things and each have distinct benefits. Undergoing these tests carries big benefits for both the firefighter personally (lower injury/heart attack risk, better job performance, higher quality of life) and for the department (reduced injury, medical and overtime costs).
Next week, I’m going to outline for you exactly what is needed in a comprehensive, effective Wellness program for firefighters, including how to meet the NFPA 1583 standard on health related fitness programs for fire department members.
To read more about my scientifically validated firefighter VO2max test click here.
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