Researchers from the University have devised new scientifically-based and nationally-recognised fitness tests and standards, against which the physical capacity of the country's 50,000 firefighters can be evaluated.

They are designed to simulate the changing nature of the job in Britain in the 21st century and ensure operational readiness at all times.

Although would-be firefighters have to pass a UK-wide physical fitness test to get a job, until now the 52 fire services have all had their own individual (and often different) requirements to ensure operational staff stay in shape. Many of the measures had been in place for decades, and were based on the experiences of non-British firefighters and research conducted in other countries, not necessarily reflecting the operational challenges faced by UK firefighters.

In the last two decades the number of fires in Britain has fallen by two-thirds, thanks to increasing use of smoke detectors, the reduction in smoking, and greater public awareness. But the range of incidents that our firefighters deal with has increased and there is greater focus now on reducing risk in the community, educating the public, and ensuring better working with partners in the emergency services and local communities. But this has exacerbated the issue of firefighters staying fit enough, with sudden rises in physical activity interspersed with less physically demanding activity.

Largest study of its kind

Bath's research, funded by the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) and the Fire Service Research and Training Trust, involved the largest study of its kind ever conducted in Europe, with 62 firefighters put through sophisticated tests to measure physiological responses to the demands put on their bodies.

Volunteer participants were given a range of standardised tasks agreed by an expert panel of experienced firefighters as being a fair reflection of the minimum demands on operational staff, whether male or female, full-time or working on a 'retained' basis. Cardiovascular tests included running hoses, carrying equipment, evacuating casualties, and fighting fires in open spaces. But instead of wearing typical breathing apparatus, participants donned face masks and devices to monitor their oxygen uptake.

Devising a drill ground test

The researchers calculated a minimum cardiorespiratory standard of 42.3 ml/kg/min for staff employed as operational firefighters. This was endorsed last year by CFOA, which has now also approved a related ‘drill ground’ test that simulates firefighting and can be undertaken at any fire station. This test will be used to assess those who fail to pass the initial treadmill-based cardiorespiratory stress test, but has the added advantage that it can be completed regularly to maintain operational fitness. Gym-based tests of upper body muscular strength and endurance, associated with ladder manipulation and equipment handling, have also been validated and endorsed.

Professor James Bilzon, Head of the Department for Health, led the work. He said: “Maintaining the right level of physical fitness ensures effective job performance, and, more importantly, the safety of firefighters and the public they serve. This is another example of the University of Bath making a difference with applied research that impacts on daily lives and benefits individuals and the whole country.”

Professor James Bilzon being interviewed
James Bilzon being interviewed by the BBC at Keynsham fire station. Drill ground tests include carrying dummies and hose reels.

Justin Johnston, Deputy Chief Fire Officer of Lancashire, leads the CFOA's work on firefighter fitness. He said: “I am delighted with the partnership with Bath and proud of the robust and professional standards we have achieved. This work has significantly enhanced UK firefighter fitness and I believe it will be of great interest to other counties too.”

Avon Fire & Rescue Service worked with the University's researchers to develop the new standard and tests and will soon be employing a civilian fitness advisor. Station Manager Pat Foley leads their work on firefighter fitness and is pictured (main photo) wearing a portable oxygen analyser before participating in some of the drill ground tests himself.

He said: “It has always been important that firefighters are fit but the role has changed. We now attend many different incidents including ones on the roads and water rescues and also carry out fire prevention work in the community. The partnership with the University of Bath is very valuable as it is relevant to the work we carry out, because it is important that we do not just measure fitness but we support staff to maintain their fitness.”

In the final phase of the current partnership, Bath researchers are analysing the results of a detailed health questionnaire sent to more than 3,000 fire service personnel, and assessing blood samples to estimate the risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease and look for links with lifestyle choices.

Watch our videos:

Professor James Bilzon (Head of Department for Health, University of Bath)

Dr Andy Siddall (University of Bath)

Station Manager Pat Foley (Avon Fire & Rescue Service)

BBC 1 Points West report (1636 video item)