How effective are workplace fitness policies? An evidence-based fitness
programme carried out on a sample group of firefighters proved encouraging, by
Intense exertion under extreme conditions is an occupational hazard for
firefighters, who must carry out arduous physical work for potentially long
periods of time.
A satisfactory baseline level of fitness and a normal body fat range is
needed to compensate for the additional physical burdens associated with
wearing heavy personal protective clothing and equipment, and coping with
adverse environmental conditions.1
Numerous studies have confirmed that individuals with higher aerobic fitness
and normal ranges of body fat do perform better in adverse firefighting
conditions, reducing the risks arising from the working environment.2,3,4,5 A
Home Office report published in March 2000 recommended that firefighters should
receive support with physical training and undergo regular fitness monitoring.6
South Wales Fire Service introduced a fitness policy in 1998. Annual health
and fitness reviews were implemented, incorporating a lifestyle assessment and
health education with the OHN. This was followed by a step test (see box, p21)
to measure aerobic fitness, and a body fat assessment conducted by the physical
As many of the heavy manual tasks associated with firefighting require
aerobic capacity7, measuring this is an important predictor of a firefighters’
performance effectiveness8. Brigades have adopted the step test as a tool to
measure aerobic capacity due to its low risk nature, because it is cheap to
perform, portable and easy to administer.
The step test has a disadvantage in that it is a predictive test that does
have an expected margin of error. Baker7 identifies that this margin of error
may vary by up to 16 per cent, and argues that other tests should be explored
due to the step test’s inadequacy.
However, Stevens prefers the step test as a method of assessing aerobic
capacity due to its practicality for use in the Fire Service.9 He compared it
with two other tests to measure aerobic capacity, and concluded that the
reliability of all the tests was similar. Steven’s sample population was greater
than Baker’s, and the author would support Steven’s opinion that the use of the
step test in the UK Fire Service is sufficient to monitor and predict an
individual’s level of fitness. The existing margin of error should be
considered and some discretion and a degree of common sense used when
interpreting the results.
The physical training policy
The physical training adviser implemented an educational campaign prior to
introducing fitness testing to raise awareness and support among firefighters.
A rolling programme of two-day courses was devised to train a minimum of
four firefighters from each station to be Watch Fitness Advisers (WFA). They
would then motivate colleagues to participate in exercises and supervise
aerobically based physical training sessions at the station.
Firefighters were allocated 45 minutes each day for physical training. Once
a WFA had been trained, it was agreed that their watch should be allowed three
months preparation before undergoing a fitness test.
On reflection, this educational campaign was a major contributor to the
success of the policy, as it highlighted the need for physical training and
ensured most individuals had prepared well under supervision prior to
implementing the testing programme.
Representative sample for study
A random sample of 52 firefighters, whose ranks ranged from firefighter to
station officer, participated in the study.
The only criteria for inclusion was that all would have records of Chester step
test scores, pre- and post-implementation of the physical training policy. The
age bracket ranged between 26 and 55 years, providing a reasonable
representation of the Brigade’s age groups.
A questionnaire was distributed to gather data on opinion and the current
level of physical training within the brigade. The response rate was 54 per
cent. As the table above demonstrates, an evenly-balanced age group. Ninety-two
per cent of the sample population exercise regularly, whether it be in work, at
home or both. And only two individuals in the older age group said that they
took no form of regular physical training.
Exercise within work hours
Firefighters are allocated 45 minutes each day for physical training and the
questionnaire showed that 78 per cent of individuals used this time for that
purpose. Firefighters work a rotational shift pattern where they work for two
days, two nights and receive four days off.
The advice provided by the brigade’s physical training adviser is that all
firefighters should aim to exercise aerobically two-three times weekly for at
least 20-30 minutes. The questionnaire response suggests that 78 per cent are
exceeding this within work hours.
Exercise within own time
The survey revealed that 86 per cent of the sample population exercise
regularly outside working hours. The majority of these firefighters also
exercise at work, which is encouraging.
Participants agreed that aerobic fitness is important for firefighting,
believing it benefits them in the long term. It was generally agreed that
individuals were sufficiently informed of the policy and were happy with the
concepts and components of the fitness review.
The main focus on introducing the policy was the preparation and education
of WFAs and it appears that this was instrumental in encouraging the majority
of individuals to participate.
Testing pre- and post-implementation of the policy showed an improvement in
aerobic capacity among all age groups. Having also considered the positive
response by firefighters in favour of the policy, it is reasonable to interpret
that allowing time for exercise at work and introducing annual health and
fitness reviews has played a significant role in improving fitness levels.
Lusa et al demonstrated in his study that young and healthy individuals with
fitness levels by far exceeding Home Office requirements find that wearing
breathing apparatus in hot conditions still proves physically demanding, thus
the need for increased fitness to reduce the risks of complications associated
with such adverse conditions.
Despite the small numbers involved in this study, the results are
encouraging. The brigade has adopted an evidence-based approach to its policy
from the outset to encourage firefighters to aim for a high standard of fitness
to prepare them for all eventualities.
The information gathered confirms there is an overall improvement in fitness
scores since the policy was introduced. The majority of staff exercise at home
as well as at work, and all but two who do not exercise at work said they
maintained their fitness in their own time.
The highly-significant improvement in fitness scores, along with the overall
opinions assessed on the questionnaire, indicates that the policy has improved
attitudes, awareness and encouraged a responsible approach towards fitness.
The weight training, strength-orientated culture that has always been
associated with the Fire Service is gradually being replaced with aerobic
training and high stamina, which has better effects on fitness and long term
health. A larger study would be advantageous to assess the overall situation
across the brigade.
Lyndon Davis is an OH nurse with South Wales Fire Service and recently
obtained a BSc (Hons) in Occupational Health Nursing at the University of
1: Sykes K (1991). Fitness to Shout About. Occupational Health 43(1):16-18
2: Lusa S, Louhevaara V, Smolander J, Kivimaki M, Korhonen O (1993).
Physiological responses of firefighting students during simulated smoke diving
in heat. Americal Industrial Hygiene Association Journal May; 54(5): 228-31
3: Misner JE, Plowman SA, Boileau RA (1987). Performance differences between
males and females on simulated fire fighting tasks. Journal of Occupational
4: Cheung SS, McLellan TM (1999). Comparison of short term aerobic training
and high aerobic power on tolerance to uncompensable heat stress. Aviation
Space Environmental Medicine; Jul 70(7):637-43
5: Love RG, Johnstone JBJ, Crawford J, Tesh KM, Graveling RA, Ritchie P,
Hutchison PA, Wetherill GZ (1994) Study of the physiological effects of wearing
breathing apparatus. Institute of Occupational Medicine Report Reference No.
6: Home Office Fire Service Inspectorate Report (2000) Fit for Duty? A thematic
review by HM Fire service Inspectorate of sickness absence and ill-health
retirements in the fire service
7: Baker S (1999) Fighting Fit Occupational Health 51(10):16-18
8: Sothmann MS, Saupe K, Jasenof D, Blaney J (1992) Heart rate response of
fire fighters to actual emergencies. Implications for cardio respiratory
fitness. Journal of Occupational Medicine 34(8):797-800
9: Stevens N, Sykes (1996) Aerobic fitness testing: an update. Journal of
Occupational Health 48(12) :436-438
Who is exercising and where?
Age &No WFA Exercise
in Work Exercise at Home None
26-30 (3) 2 3 3 0
31-35 (7) 1 6 7 0
36-40 (3) 0 2 3 0
41-45 (7) 1 6 6 0
46-50 (4) 0 4 3 0
51-55 (4) 0 1 2 2
Total (28) 4 22 24 2