Tools of the Trade: January 2019

Firefighters are like professional athletes
Sean Kingswell
January 03, 2019
Written by Sean Kingswell
The word “professional” means doing something as a livelihood, while the word “athlete” means exercising physical ability in many forms.  

Therefore, simply put, professional firefighters are professional athletes. There are differences, of course, in terms of pay and the tasks involved.  

An important distinction is that the average length of an athlete’s career is three to six years while we are shooting for 30 or more.  

So, who needs to take care of their body more?  

The consequences of being a firefighter are, of course, a lot more significant. Professional athletes and firefighters are similar in the areas of teamwork, passion, being prone to injury, working in the public eye, working with an audience and certain expectations from society.  

A very important difference is that athletes get a fair amount of their conditioning while working on the skill sets, in the form of practices. But, not many fire departments can conduct drills often enough or hard enough while firefighters are on duty.

Athletes also get more than ample opportunity to warm up, while firefighters go from cold to hot with no physical prep time.  

The athlete part applies to both professions. Both are physical. The success of efforts is based in many ways on physical ability and, of course, skill sets.  

For a “professional,” being physically capable and having good skill sets isn’t about being able to execute something, it is about being able to execute well.  

NHL hockey player Sidney Crosby doesn’t need to practice slap shots, but he does because he wants to be perfect when he takes one. He also works out because he expects a lot of himself as a professional.  

I am not implying that firefighters should be at the physical level of a pro athlete, just that they should be responsible to be their most fit and professional selves possible.  

Having had the pleasure of training many athletes, I know there is sometimes a common misunderstanding about them. Many people will label a certain sport with a certain perceived physical attribute or ability.

Though different sports do require different strengths than others, there is one underlying concept that applies to all, and that is athleticism. Athleticism as a mix of being able to execute a wide variety of tasks, which includes both biomechanically and physiologically.  

Strength often gets perceived as the top attribute for fire fighting and it is important. That being said, extreme absolute strength is not the most important attribute for fighting fires. Firefighters are rarely expected to lift an obscenely heavy object on their own. So, we do need strength, but we also need strength endurance. We need to be able to be strong over time.

Picture carrying a patient down multiple smoked-filled floors of an apartment building. This will last a lot longer than a one-rep max.

The strongest person in a crew is not always an asset if their cardio is not good.

Obviously, a huge and very important part of what we do is “on air,” and if we can not stick around long enough to execute the task then we are a liability to our crew and our customers.  

Knowing how to improve our cardio is important. Steady-state cardio is not always going to improve your cardio perfectly for the job of fire fighting. Good body composition helps to improve cardio. Unwanted weight means we are carrying an additional load on our body and heart.   

Being flexible is certainly part of our athleticism. Being flexible can help prevent injury. In addition, good flexibility can help improve strength.

Mobility is tied to flexibility and can have a bearing on good biomechanics and practical ability. For example, good shoulder mobility can be crucial for fishing for an SCBA strap or swimming through wall studs in an RIT scenario.  

ABC, or agility, balance and co-ordination, should also be part of a firefighter’s athletic development. All have a direct bearing on the ability to perform work effectively and to prevent injury.  

Co-ordination is important and also includes hand-eye and foot-eye co-ordination. Agility can be really important in our ability to move in different firefighting scenarios. Two specific areas that firefighters should also make sure they include in their training are stairs and groundwork.

Some studies indicate that stair climbing is the toughest part of our job. My experience is that interior fire fighting or rescue, while crawling and on air, is the toughest and arguably the most dangerous. Groundwork can be improved in the gym. Both of these areas need to be done well.  

Please look at yourself as a professional and as an athlete and, in doing so, make sure you are training like a pro and training like the occupational athlete that you are. 


Sean Kingswell is an experienced professional firefighter, personal trainer, fitness coach and the creator of the FIRESAFECADETS program. Contact Sean at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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