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Peer Fitness

20 September 2020
Peer Fitness

In a previous edition I commented on the work of Matt Wenning, a three time world record holder in powerlifting, who consults with tactical populations such as the military and fire departments.  Per his recommendations, an EMS worker or firefighter should be able to deadlift twice their own bodyweight, and to his credit, he claims the average deadlift of those departments he works with is in the neighborhood of 400 lbs. In this contribution I would like flesh out a little bit of the “how” and “why” such a protocol may be effective.

As the nature of our job duties changes, particularly firefighters who are routinely more engaged more in the medical aspects of their job, it follows that our strength requirements may also change.  When Mr. Wenning was first tasked with examining fire departments to assist in lowering their injury rate and thus reducing the insurance rates, he discovered that a larger percentage of injuries occurred during medical calls involving heavy patients and/or less than ideal lifting positions. 

Matt’s strategy was rather straightforward.  He surmised that people get hurt by overexertion when lifting patients in the field because the job requirements either match or exceed their lifting capability. He also noticed that maximum lifting capacity would inevitably be compromised when it is 4 a.m. and you are standing between a sink and a tub trying your best to effect a rescue. Simply stated, the stronger you are, the less perceived exertion you deploy in any rescue scenario and thus your chances of sustaining an injury become greatly reduced.

Earlier in my career with the Cleveland Fire Department, I was asked to assist our union, IAFF Local 93, in reducing injury rates among our firefighters.  While researching injuries on the fireground, I found that a full half of injuries sustained by firefighters resulted from strains and sprains, of which half of those involved the low back. This led to my development of a “back school” which I then taught to supervisors and incoming recruits. This lesson plan consisted of basic back physiology and hands on lifting technique critique.  I also published a pamphlet on back and spine health which was distributed to every fire station in Cleveland, and those members who followed the prescribed protocol did so with great success. 

At this point I would like to add that training lifts such as the deadlift, although extremely beneficial to job performance, may also present an even greater risk to your career longevity when performed incorrectly.  While every department may not have the funds to hire a world champion powerlifter to assist in their department’s wellness goals, usually every fire department has that one guy, (you if you are reading this) who is extremely knowledgeable about all things iron related.

The International Association of Firefighters recognized that firefighters helping firefighters is a well established practice in the fire service. With that in mind they developed the IAFF Peer Fitness Training Program to assist the safety forces with their department’s goals. For more information about this program, I would encourage you to go their website http://www.iaff.org/peer-fitness/ .  There you will find more information on how to become a PFT, as well as valuable articles on health and wellness found under the resources tab.

As first responders, the most valuable tool we possess is a healthy and properly functioning body. I hope this information here helps to provide interested members in reaching not only their own fitness/wellness goals, but also to those around them.  People will inevitably copy success, so if you stay healthy, others will likely consciously or perhaps even unconsciously follow your lead. So continue to train hard and to train safe.

bio photo

Lieutenant Michael "Sporty" Kilbane

Michael Kilbane is a retired officer from the Cleveland Fire Department having served for over 35 years.

In that time, he has spearheaded many efforts to advance the betterment of the division through wellness initiatives and grants. He has also authored a pamphlet on maintaining back strength and health for firefighters.  Mr. Kilbane’s education includes an undergraduate degree in both Philosophy and Natural Health, along with master’s level coursework in both Physiology and Philosophy.  He is also a member of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is recognized through that organization as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. As a trained massotherapist, Mr. Kilbane has also witnessed literally first hand the damage done to first responders by over straining in some of the most hostile work environments. His most recent focus is utilizing kettle bells for functional training and is the author of The Athletes Ultimate Guide to Kettlebell Training.

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