Playing with Fire
It seems obvious to state that Fire Service personnel must possess the physical capabilities that allow them to perform their role safely and effectively. Not only for their own safety, but also for that of the public they serve. However, until recently there was no established, legally defensible, policies or procedures in place to measure this.
Research at the University of Bath, sponsored by the Chief Fire Officers Association, has had significant impact on the development and implementation of new Physical Employment Standards. These standards look to ensure the physical competence, health and safety of UK firefighters.
Since 2012, Professors Bilzon, Standage and Stokes, from out Department for Health have engaged with a range of stakeholders with the aim of identifying and quantifying the physical demands of critical firefighting tasks, to enable the development of a set of Physical Employment Standards. They also had support from Dr Sidall, a post-doctoral researcher with the department, and two research-active health and fitness advisors from the FireFit Steering Group.
Identifying our areas of focus
Through a series of projects, researchers were able to identify key operational tasks that were pivotal to the role of a UK firefighter, and test these to identify minimum performance requirements.
Beginning with some rigorous task analysis, the most physically demanding operational tasks were highlighted, and five generic firefighting task simulations proposed.
First, sixty-two UK firefighters took part in each of these simulations to assess their validity. Their metabolic and cardiovascular strain was measured throughout each. More than 90% of participants endorsed four of these tasks as operationally valid. From this, researchers could determine a minimum cardiorespiratory fitness standard for safe and efficient firefighting performance.
Next, it was recognised that firefighters require significant upper body muscular strength and endurance. So, fifty-one volunteers took part in a ladder handling task and three corresponding gym surrogate tests. Again, the result was the identification of minimum standards a firefighter would be required to meet to be able to perform their role safely and effectively. In terms of simple gym based exercises, the baselines were:
- 1 x 35kg seated shoulder press
- 1 x 60kg rope pull down
- 23 x 28kg rope pull down
As a result, firefighters were categorised against the set criteria using a traffic light system, clearly indicating any areas for required improvement.
Understanding lifestyle factors
In order to understand the holistic picture, in 2013, a national survey was distributed to understand the lifestyle behaviours and determinants of health and wellbeing for fire service personnel. Over 4,500 individuals responded, which led to findings that physical activity, sleep and smoking were independent determinants of wellbeing, obesity and chronic disease. These findings are now utilised by Health and Fitness Advisors to implement personalised work-place intervention strategies to enhance the health, fitness and wellbeing of personnel.
So, through this testing and analysis, our researchers were able to;
- Identify the minimum acceptable performance on a range of critical firefighting tasks
- Identify physical employment tests and standards to accurately predict firefighting performance
- Develop a fitness management process and guidance documents to support implementation
Impact and spreading the word
The reach of the impact has been quite considerable in the UK, with over 44,000 operational firefighters having already benefitted from these findings. Our fire service attend an average of 725,000 incidents per year, so the benefit to the public, as well as individuals, can be seen clearly.
Further beneficiaries include National and International Governing Bodies and the Fire Brigades Union.
The Chief Fire Officers Association communicated the new policy and guidance for completing these tests. In 2016, the guidance was made official national best practice for all fire and rescue services. Professor Bilzon was invited to present the findings and recommendations to a Home Office National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire and Rescue Services, who were tasked with producing a Firefighter Fitness Best Practice Guide. The guide acknowledges research from the University of Bath throughout the report.
The Fire Brigades Union publicly endorsed this research stating:
' A significant part of this process was persuading the relevant Union representatives that this was in the best interests of our employees.' - Chair of the FireFit Steering Group.
The general public were made aware of these new tests and standards through a range of media events.
Integrating research with existing protocols
In order to make the most of our findings, it was important to ensure consistency between our research, and existing ways of working across the fire service. Two areas were identified as needing additional review;
The annual fitness assessments and selection tests used by the fire service. The chair of the FireFit Steering Group commissioned our researchers to meet with authors of the National Firefighter Selection Tests report and draft a short document outlining recommendations to integrate the two processes. Our research has led to changes being made to this selection process, to incorporate our strength tests.
The London Fire Brigade (LFB). Due to the nature of urban firefighting, the LFB confirmed that they perform several firefighting tasks differently to the rest of the country. We collected new data from LFB employees performing modified tasks and made specific recommendations for urban firefighting
'Some of the greatest impacts were not even part of the original research plan, but we thank you for your flexibility… in the development of an alternative FireFighter Simulation test for urban firefighting, including the London Fire Brigade.' - Chair of the FireFit Steering Group.
In 2019, an independent survey was conducted by the FireFit Steering Group to assess the impact of national guidance since the previous survey in 2011. It was fantastic to see the percentage of Fire and Rescue Services adopting the recommended standards had risen from 76% to 95%. Additionally, a survey of fitness advisor opinions identified 95% of services had changed their policies to reflect new standards.
The impact of the results can also be seen through the proportion of Fire and Rescue services removing firefighters with a substandard level of fitness. As a result of new tests, this increased from 62% to 95% meaning the safety of individuals and the public has been further enhanced.
81% of health and fitness advisors felt new guidance has improved how firefighters with low levels of physical fitness were being managed.
Interestingly, since the implementation of changes resulting from the study, the average cardiorespiratory fitness of UK firefighters has improved. Fitness advisors (over 68% of them), supported this by stating standards had increased the levels of physical fitness in their service. This has led to the number of firefighters failing the fitness assessment significantly reducing by 53%.
So what does this mean for fire services across the country?
Well, the number of lost duty days due to capability has decreased by 88%. This meaning that firefighters are better equipped to carry out the range of duties they may be tasked with.
To quantify this in monetary terms, the net national saving for the sector is estimated to be between £16 -£17 million per annum.
The findings of this research have had an additional benefit for the rehabilitation of injured personnel.
'…we use the standards as part of an assessment and fitness development for those seeking to return to operational duties, thereby giving the individual clarity on their personal fitness level.' - The Fire Fighters Charity
'The partnership between the National Fire Chiefs Council, the FireFit Steering Group and the University of Bath has allowed us to develop, validate and implement evidence-based physical employment standards across the UK Fire and Rescue Services. The work has transformed our focus on occupational fitness and had already increase the fitness standards of our operational fire fighters, enhancing their health and the organisations ability to manage those who need to improve their physical fitness for safe and effective long-term employment.' - The Chair of the FireFit Steering Group