Expertly training the tactical athlete

Professional-level physical training for wildland firefighters and others.

Yesterday the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center’s Facebook page linked to an organization in Jackson, Wyoming that trains tactical athletes, wildland firefighters, and other individuals. The Mountain Tactical Institute has numerous training programs and plans. Their customers can either purchase a written plan, or train in the company’s gym or “sport-specific cycle”. In light of the two recent serious injuries during physical training on the first and second day of the fire season, some of their guiding principles could be applicable in training wildland firefighters, especially those new to the job.

We are not affiliated with the company, but you may be interested in some excerpts from the company’s website:


Strong Swift Durable develops strength and conditioning which transfers to performance and durability on the mountain, battlefield, urban streets, and fire grounds.

All that matters is outside performance.

Our facility in Wyoming is a Strength and Conditioning Laboratory. At any one time we can be working with climbers aiming for Fitz Roy, female soldiers gunning for Ranger School, fire fighters developing a fitness assessment, airmen trying for PJ Selection, professional ultra runners building offseason strength, stock brokers with a GORCUK Challenge on the horizon and teenage girls preparing for soccer season.


FITNESS GOALS OF STRONG SWIFT DURABLE PROGRAMMING

  • High Relative Strength By “Relative Strength” we mean strength per bodyweight. This isn’t a power lifting regimine focused on how much you can lift. Not is it a body building program designed to make you look good. Our strength training is designed to get you as strong as possible without significant weight gain.
  • Rapid Movement Over Ground Sprinting, mid-distance running, hiking uphill under load. We want to get you faster.
  • High Work Capacity for Short/Intense Events We want to replace the pokey V-4 engine in your chest with a high horsepower, V-8.
  • Stamina for multiple events over a long duration. Stamina for a long event. Be able to go long and hard on day 1. Be able to do it again on day 2.
  • Mental Fitness Mental Fitness can be trained, and de-trained, just like physical fitness.
  • Durability It’s hard to stay fit and enjoy outside the gym sports and recreation when you’re hurt. We use strength training, core strength training and focused mobility work to keep our athletes in the gym, on the field, and in the mountains.

  • Embrace and celebrate the fact that soldiers/LE officers/Firefighters are professional athletes.
  • Articulate the responsibility Tactical Athletes have to themselves to be fit for duty – it’s link to survivability.
  • Articulate the responsibility Tactical Athletes have to their families to be fit for duty – their survivability.
  • Articulate the responsibility Tactical Athletes have to their partners and teammates to be fit for duty    tactical performance and survivability.
  • Fitness Improves Everything.

(For the Unit Fitness Leader)

You’ll need at most two types of group programming to get started – an OnRamp training plan to get guys spooled up, and daily training for everyone else.

[…]

Fat tactical athletes aren’t funny. “Legacy” members aren’t “special snowflakes” and experience is no substitute for fitness. No “slow” fires exist for unfit firefighters. No “slow” bullets exist for unfit soldiers and LE officers. Understand the poisonous effect unfit members and a poor fitness culture has on unit morale. Speak with actions and words. Be steadfast and direct, but never righteous or indignant, and never preach. Be a quiet, steadfast, professional.

[…]

No one can force or convince grown adult men and women to fix their diet and start a training program. Don’t let unit commanders force an adult parenting role upon you by sending you unfit, unhealthy members and expecting you to give them self discipline. You can be a resource for diet/training info, offer encouragement, and invite them to join the group onramp or regular training group, but you cannot make them attend or train.

Safely training the tactical athlete

EMTAfter reading the Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) about the Rhabdomyolysis (Rhabdo) injury that occurred May 2 in South Dakota on the first day of the fire season after running for more than nine miles before doing uphill sprints, I started thinking about, not so much WHAT happened, but how to prevent similar serious injuries.

A couple of weeks before the Rhabdo case, on April 19 a wildland firefighter in the Northwest suffered a heat stroke while running on day 2 of their season. The employee was unconscious for several hours and spent four days in the hospital.

Both of these exercise-induced conditions can be life-threatening; 33 percent percent of patients diagnosed with Rhabdo develop a quick onset of kidney failure, and 8% of all cases are fatal.

Heat stroke can also kill, according to Medscape:

When therapy is delayed, the mortality rate may be as high as 80%; however, with early diagnosis and immediate cooling, the mortality rate can be reduced to 10%.

These two very serious incidents in a two week period that occurred at the beginning of the fire season should be a wakeup call for agencies employing wildland firefighters.

I am not a medical or exercise specialist, but neither were any of the four members of the South Dakota Rhabdo FLA team. It was comprised of a District Fire Management Officer, a Natural Resources Specialist, an Assistant Superintendent on a Hotshot crew, and an Assistant Fire Engine Operator.

A person might expect that for an exercise-induced injury that is fatal in eight percent of the cases, a medical expert and an exercise physiologist would be members of the team. The FLA concentrated on recognizing symptoms of Rhabdo, which is good. Firefighters need to be be informed, again, about what to look for. But the necessity of treating the symptoms could be avoided if the condition was prevented in the first place.

Prevention was not addressed in the document, except to mention availability of water. Dehydration isn’t the leading cause of Rhabdo, which is caused by exertion, but it can be a contributing factor.

With two life-threatening medical conditions on firefighting crews in a two-week period that occurred during mandatory exercise on day one and two of training, medical and exercise professionals perhaps could have evaluated what caused the injuries, and suggested how to design and implement a physical fitness program that would lessen the chances of killing firefighters on their first or second day on the job. But the LEARNING opportunity of the FLA was squandered.

The wildland fire agencies are not alone in hiring people off the streets and throwing them into a very physically demanding job. The military does this every day, as do high school athletic programs. There is probably a large body of research that has determined how to turn a person into an athlete without putting their lives in danger.

While the three firefighters and the natural resources specialist I’m sure meant well and did the best they could to write the FLA within the limits of their training and experience, the firefighting agencies need to get serious about a professional level exercise training program. After all, they are employing TACTICAL ATHLETES.

This issue is serious enough that the NWCG (since there is no National Wildland Firefighting Agency) should hire an exercise physiologist who can design, implement, and monitor a program for turning people off the street into tactical firefighting athletes.

Wildland firefighters called “tactical athletes”

El Cariso Hot Shots, 1972
“Tactical athletes”, also known as the 1972 version of the El Cariso Hotshots (missing  Superintendent Ron Campbell, and Bill Gabbert who was behind the camera). Click to enlarge.

Charles Palmer, who spent 20 years as a firefighter and smokejumper, describes wildland firefighters as “tactical athletes”.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Seattle Times.

…Physically and mentally, the demands of the profession are such that Charles Palmer, an associate professor at The University of Montana who studies performance psychology of wildland firefighters, considers such workers “tactical athletes.”

“These aren’t people who ride around trucks and squirt water on stuff — this is really demanding from a lot of different angels,” Palmer said. “You travel around, you have to perform, they’re getting very little downtime, they have nutritional challenges … physically you have to perform really well.”

In one study, Palmer screened wildland firefighters for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He said about 20 percent tested above the established cutoff score.

“It’s very possible a high percentage of folks who work as wildland firefighters have ADHD,” he said. “If you start thinking about a profile, people with ADHD are very comfortable with risk. They like fast-paced environments. They like activity. They like moving around.”

Front-line firefighters burn between 4,000 and 6,500 calories each day and need 7-10 liters of water each day, said Brent Ruby, director of the University of Montana’s work physiology department.

“Perhaps the top 10-15 percent of the average population can do this job based on fitness levels,” said Joe Domitrovich, an exercise physiologist with the National Forest Service.

But the Marshawn Lynch comparisons only go so far.

“They don’t get paid like a professional athlete would,” Palmer said. A 2013 National Parks brochure advertises pay of about $10-17 an hour to firefighters, before overtime or hazard pay, but base pay varies widely. Base pay for entry-level state Department of Natural Resources wildland firefighters starts at $12.50…