Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Focus on Fitness 2012: A model wellness/ fitness program

By Todd Aitken   

Features Fitness Health and Wellness

Just as with all firefighters, we at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport are engaged in physically demanding, unpredictable and potentially life-threatening situations, as we strive to protect the airport community and its guests.

Just as with all firefighters, we at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport are engaged in physically demanding, unpredictable and potentially life-threatening situations, as we strive to protect the airport community and its guests.

Firefighters at Toronto Pearson Fire & Emergency Services in their hockey jerseys in front of their newest apparatus. The department’s wellness/fitness initiative relies on several outside resources and specialists in the region.
Photo by John Lewis


As is the case in all fire departments, it’s crucial that our firefighters are healthy and fit to respond. In December 2010, a wellness/fitness initiative was created in order to better serve those who rely on us. Participation in this initiative is voluntary, confidential and non-punitive.

Buy-in from all department members is a necessary part of a wellness/fitness initiative; here’s how your department can establish a program.

First, a bit about us. Toronto Pearson Fire & Emergency Services responds to more than 4,500 emergencies annually from two airport fire halls. We have a Pierce pumper, a heavy rescue and a 75-foot aerial, six crash trucks, two light rescues and a platoon chiefs’ van.

At Pearson, we provide a high level of service to our clientele, including symptom relief, medical first responder, confined-space rescue, hazardous-materials response, aircraft-rescue fire fighting, auto extrication, rope rescue, structural fire fighting, as well as public education and investigations. We also have our own state-of-the-art training academy (Fire and Emergency Services Training Institute or FESTI) which attracts firefighters from all over the world.

Toronto Pearson is the busiest airport in Canada, with more than 33.4 million passengers annually and it is the 18th busiest in the world by aircraft movement. There are more than 40,000 people employed at the airport, 1.2 million square feet of warehouse space and 483,500 metric tonnes of cargo moved each year. Terminal 1 is the 29th largest building in the world (in floor space) at 4.9 million square feet, and has one of the largest parking structures. There are five main runways and 30 taxiways.
The goals of the wellness/fitness initiative are:

  • to improve the overall health and physical fitness of the members of the Toronto Pearson Fire Department;
  • to reduce the number of work-related injuries and lost workdays due to injury or illness;
  • to develop a training environment that is more relevant to the firefighting world;
  • to promote wellness and fitness within the airport community.

A wellness/fitness committee was struck to act as an advisory board to the fire chief in order to make recommendations regarding fitness equipment, programs and education. The committee decided to divide the initiative into six distinct phases:

1 The first step was to outfit the fire halls with top-of-the-line, functional-based fitness equipment, designed to strengthen the entire body. This equipment offers everyone the opportunity to benefit from even the most basic physical activities, as well as more extensive and specialized training sessions. Our equipment includes: an Atlantis functional trainer, an Atlantis glute/ham machine, a pull-up/dip station, 40-foot battling ropes, kettlebells, a Smith machine, a SMART balance board, a 12-kilogram ViPR training tube, a hex-bar, a core board, TRX suspension training equipment, Smart Toners, BOSU balls, stability balls, medicine balls, an adjustable bench, Olympic bars, a rotational torso trainer, plyo-boxes, dumbbells and free weights, a treadmill, a stepmill, a C2 rower and a stationary bike.

2 The next step was to develop working relationships with the following professionals: Dr. Trevor Cottrell, the co-ordinator of the Bachelor of Applied Health Sciences (exercise science and health promotion) program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., Dr. Green’s Health and Wellness Clinic and Twist Sport Conditioning in Whitby, Ont. Green has been working with our firefighters on injury prevention and he makes preliminary assessments to determine any dysfunctions in joints or muscles. Twist has been working with our combat-challenge athletes and a few of our hockey players.

3 We then developed a wellness/fitness book that the firefighters use as a reference for information on nutrition and physical fitness. It includes sample exercises and workouts and articles on injury prevention, functional assessment and resources for firefighters. Additional information is collected and made available by our joint labor-management, wellness/fitness team. Chuck La Bercasio and Brent Wakefield, fourth-year Sheridan students in the Bachelor of Applied Health Sciences (exercise science and health promotion) program, assisted the committee in the preparation of this book.

4 At this stage we introduced the firefighters to the new functional-based fitness equipment. Wakefield worked with each shift and division to demonstrate the new equipment and to develop proper lifting techniques. Below is the progression that we developed, with each session lasting a couple of hours:

  • Squat/deadlift
  • Push/pull day
  • Linking: functional movements
  • Nutrition
  • Rehab, warm ups and stretching
  • Programming day

5 We are now in the process of developing peer fitness trainers on each shift to assist with nutritional counselling, design fitness programs, provide instruction on various exercise techniques and act as role models within other airport initiatives. The expectation is that the peer fitness trainers will initially become personal training specialists, while upgrading their education in advanced training techniques, movement and performance screening, speed, agility and quickness training, trigger-point therapy, advanced programming principles and high-performance nutrition through Sheridan College’s human performance training specialist certificate program and with the help of Twist Sport Conditioning.

6 The final phase of the initiative is to develop and monitor personal programs for the firefighters based on their goals, previous injuries, functional assessments, time commitment for training and access to fitness equipment away from the fire hall.

The new gym facility has been available for about a year and has been well received. The results are encouraging from all sides and include:

  • a high participation rate among all divisions;
  • fewer work related injuries;
  • better team building through shift workouts and participation in fitness challenges such as combat challenge and the Tough Mudder obstacle course;
  • rehabilitation of existing injuries;
  • an opportunity for fitness trainers to improve their credentials.


Todd Aitken is an acting deputy chief at Toronto Pearson Fire & Emergency Services. He works part-time at Twist Sport Conditioning Centre where, as a coach (TSCC-Gold), he trains elite athletes and firefighter combat challenge participants. Contact him at

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