When it comes to fitness, and cross-training, the firefighters of Eagle County put most mountain athletes to shame.

One day, a workout might involve short, exhaustive bursts of exercise—like humping 75 pounds of gear up a staircase in scorching temperatures—the next, a grueling miles-long backcountry march shouldering a 45-pound pack, followed by an hours-long session of swinging a five-pound Pulaski axe, digging a fire line trench. If you think that sounds tiring, try doing the same with a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) strapped to your face. Then there’s race day. Instead of a warmup stretch and a shot from a starting pistol, it begins with the blare of a klaxon (typically in the middle of the night), and a sprint from a dead sleep to wide awake and ready to roll in less than two minutes.

Engineer Shane Merlihan wears full bunker gear for some of his cardio workout, which often includes squats while shouldering a bundle of fire hose.

That regimen may sculpt the fantasied firefighter physique, but the mental and physical stress of being ready to respond to any emergency at any moment during the typical 48-hour shift can exact its toll on even the fittest in any company. Never mind the risks of charging into a burning building: firefighters are far more likely to die from a cardiac event like a heart attack, which accounts for roughly half of all firefighter fatalities, eclipsing the rate for the general population (heart disease accounts for only one in seven civilian deaths in the United States). “They’re not taking care of their bodies in the same way an athlete would, where they’re resting well and they’re warming up and cooling down properly,” explains Lieutenant Jenny Hochtl of the Eagle River Fire Protection District (ERFPD). “Firefighters are notoriously dehydrated (they drink too much coffee), their ambient level of stress is higher than the normal person just because of their work schedules and what they see, and when you do sleep during your 48 hours on, it’s a totally different sleep than when you’re off duty.”

Pull-ups at the Station 7 gym.

Most on the force would laugh when asked what a typical day is like, as an average day on the job in ERFPD’s territory (which stretches from Tennessee Pass near Camp Hale to Wolcott) is anything but routine. When not involved with meetings, vehicle and building maintenance, and public relations visits, firefighters at Avon’s new Buck Creek firehouse frequently are called to respond to accidents on the interstate, while the company quartered at Station 11 in Beaver Creek often responds to calls involving medical emergencies on the mountain. Add the occasional early-morning structure fire in Minturn (as in March), and early-season wildfire in Edwards (in April), and you begin to appreciate just how unpredictable a day (and night) on the job might be.

Firefighter Kevin Kerr on the Keiser sled, a firefighting training device that simulates the action of chopping through doors, floors, and walls.

To deal with the ups and downs, the 60-person (Hochtl being the lone female) corps of the Eagle River Fire Protection District needs to train for the short-term demands of the job while keeping themselves fit to avoid the longer-term risks to cardiac health. As such, Hochtl oversees the department’s wellness and fitness group, a responsibility that involves everything from stocking station house gyms with kettle bells and free weights to organizing ERFPD’s mandatory fitness testing, which is part of a larger push by departments nationwide to respond to the growing concern over firefighters’ cardiac wellness—along with ensuring that they can handle the daily job requirements. At least once a year, ERFPD first responders report to Colorado State University’s human performance lab for a slew of tests that include fasting blood work, body composition tests (both skin-fold assessments and underwater weighing), and an EKG stress test to detect any cardiac anomalies while running at maximum heart rate on a treadmill. Then there’s the nationally recognized Work Capacity Test—also known as the “pack test”—that firefighters who battle wildland fires (e.g. pretty much everyone in our district) must complete within 46 minutes while wearing a 45-pound weighted vest—simulating the equipment they’d need to huff out on a wildfire call—and walking a distance that simulates the hike they’d do with their unit, in this case, three miles. The national standard mandates that participants finish the mileage in less than 45 minutes, but ERFPD personnel (who walk the test each year at Homestake Peak School’s track) get an extra sixty-second handicap to account for altitude. Since the district’s firefighters might be called upon to answer both types of emergencies, the tests make up the department’s minimum fitness standard, meaning that anyone in the department needs the aerobic capacity of an endurance athlete, while also being able to tackle shorter bursts of power-heavy work like a CrossFit champion (to date, no one in the department has failed either evaluation).

Firefighter Mat DeVito on the box jump

The workouts to prepare for such vastly disparate fitness standards, however, tend to be as diverse as the job itself. In addition to trainings (Avon’s $9 million Station 7 at Buck Creek includes a tower to simulate running up flights of high-rise hotel stairs), the department sets aside three hours every morning during each 48-hour shift, while expecting (but not requiring) personnel to continue the regimen during the 96 hours they’re off the clock. “We establish a culture where we expect a certain level of fitness and health that ultimately can’t be defined just by your two days on,” says Hochtl. “It’s not unusual to hear that on their days off, some of the guys all went mountain biking, or went rafting together, so that helps that there’s kind of this shared mentality.”

While most firefighters partake in mountain sports—like running trail marathons, stand-up paddleboarding down whitewater rapids, or mountain biking—that help with the endurance aspect of the job, on-duty workouts are where they tend to hit the weights, focusing on building strength with more traditional weightlifting—like squats, deadlifts, curls, and bench presses—courtesy of stocked in-house gyms at each facility. Mornings are often spent running through circuits, too, dragging human-size dummies or taking the hammer to the Keiser sled (a piece of training equipment that simulates “forcible entry,” chopping through a door or a wall) sometimes fully dressed in their heavy bunker gear and breathing out of their SCBAs to re-create the conditions of a real call—and running stairs similarly dressed. A little friendly competition often speeds up the training process, too; last December, ladder companies tracked their meters on the firehouses’ rowing machines and ski ergs for department bragging rights. But there’s an even bigger motivator than that. “The public just expects us to perform physically,” says Hochtl. “That’s the expectation, so we need to make sure our people are capable of doing that.” Meaning the ultimate fitness test happens whenever someone dials 911. 

The Six-Day Firefighter Workout

Day 1: Circuits

Four-man team row with SCBAs: row 250 meters and complete push-ups or hold plank until the next team member finishes, the goal being to row 10,000 meters or run out of air—whichever comes first. 

Timed Keiser sled, dummy drag, or stair climb with heavy pack, followed by 1-2 mins rest 

Timed 2,000-meter team relay row, each person pulling 15-20 strokes before handing off to the next team member 

Push-ups: 10 every 10 minutes 

Day 2: Heavy Strength Day

Shoulder press with a 20-pound weight vest  before completing a 200-meter row and

10 squat cleans

10 pull-ups

10 one-leg (pistol) squats

10 push presses

Day 3: Functional Training

Wearing bunker gear and SCBA mask, carrying up to 75 pounds of equipment, climb and descend the nine flights of stairs at St. James Place in Beaver Creek until oxygen tank is depleted, typically after 25 to 30 minutes of work.

Day 4: Endurance

3 minutes of work on the ski erg or rowing machine, followed by 2 minutes for 6 sets

Day 5: Functional Strength

Stability ball/core strength

Squats

Deadlifts

Leg extensions

Back pull-downs

Bench press

Shoulder press

Tricep extensions

Bicep curls

Back extensions

Planks

Day 6: Aerobic Circuits

10-minute warm-up, followed by alternating through four timed exercises at each station, 3 sets:

Plank, Russian twist, row, box jumps

Jump squats, mountain climbers, hip bridge, wood chop

Lunges with twist, ski erg, thrusters, kettle bell swings 

Deadlifts, push-ups, pull-ups, stair sprints

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