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Moving in the right direction
Published:  01 September, 2008

Kevin Sykes of the University of Chester is Professor of Occupational Health & Fitness and Director of the international postgraduate Centre for Exercise and Nutrition Science. Firefighter fitness is getting better, he says, but the conundrum of who should take responsibility (employer or individual) still remains.

This role has seen Kevin Sykes travel across the world looking at the importance of fitness levels and diet on operational firefighting, in particular as regards the cardiovascular system.


Over the last 10 years Professor Sykes has seen a significant change in the attitudes and the general atmosphere towards fitness that he believes is now firmly heading in the right direction. “Most brigades have their own fitness programmes and firefighters have more options about when they can work out, and have access to far more information and personnel who can help them”.


The need to test fitness levels is something that Professor Sykes says is necessary but he concedes that it is difficult – particularly for the larger brigades: “The Home Office recommends that fitness should be checked routinely for all operational personnel every six months – which ideally is about right – but it may be hard to find the time to do this for every single firefighter. However, all firefighters should be made aware of the importance of staying fit and eating healthily, not just for the good of the brigade so they can operate competently when on duty in a burning building, but for their own health and wellbeing.”


As a recent US study as shown (see page 42), the most frequent cause of death among firefighters is not burns, accidents or smoke inhalation but heart disease. Cardiac problems, the area that Professor Sykes is particularly interested in, are therefore a big danger for firefighters. “The rise in heart rate that a firefighter experiences when called to an emergency can place serious strain on the heart, particularly for the less fit individual. Furthermore when they leave an incident, and are tired and dehydrated, heart attacks can occur. Studies have also shown that firefighters with low aerobic fitness have a 90 per cent greater risk of heart attack than those who are aerobically fit, therefore it’s vital that firefighters maintain their fitness levels to ensure they reduce this risk as much as possible.”


 Professor Sykes has seen many different levels of fitness training around the world. “Scandinavia is a particularly advanced group of countries when it comes to fitness, and the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health is very good at providing evidence-based research to support this. In many countries firefighters in large cities like Washington, New York or Sydney, are often given time to train during the working day. However, head just a few miles out of the city to the local brigades, run by volunteers, and the levels of fitness may drop because they haven’t got the time or equipment to stay at a required level of fitness.” This, Professor Sykes concedes, is a difficult conundrum:“

The fire services in the UK are becoming increasingly good at giving their firefighters time to train during the work-time, whereas it is relatively rare to find this opportunity afforded within other emergency services. It comes down to who should take responsibility for an emergency worker’s health and fitness, the employer, the individual – or both. It is a difficult question and one that doesn’t have an easy answer.”