Fire management is both physically and mentally demanding. Working in the fire environment can entail long hours of arduous work, and split-second decision making. Don't be misguided by a sense of inactivity on prescribed fires. If things go wrong, your physical fitness level may determine not only the containment of a spot-over or escape, but also your personal safety. During a busy burn season, physical fitness can also reduce your risk of colds or respiratory infection by keeping your immune system operating effectively.

Of course there are other benefits to physical fitness, including reduced risk of heart disease and osteoporosis, greater strength in bones, tendons and muscle, and reduced risk of injury. Aerobic and muscular fitness can even make your leisure time more enjoyable.

Physical Fitness and Work Capacity Tests
The USDA Forest Service began studying job performance requirements in 1965 in order to define minimum fitness standards for its firefighters. Based on their results, researchers developed tests focused on aerobic capacity: the ability to take in, transport and use oxygen. These tests are referred to as physical fitness tests. For many years, the Step Test and 1.5 Mile Run were the two commonly used physical fitness tests.

The Step Test involves stepping up and down on a box of gender-specific height for 5 minutes. It is a submaximal test of cardiovascular performance, so is less risky for individuals who may have a less than optimal fitness level. The score is based on post-exercise pulse rate, adjusted for age, weight and gender. It is quick and easy to administer.

For the 1.5 Mile Run test, the participants must run this distance over flat terrain in a given time. A disadvantage of this test is that it demands near maximal effort, so should not be attempted by the unfit or inactive individual. Although the test measures cardiovascular performance, it may not be as accurate as the step test since it may be influenced by factors such as power and speed.

The Pack Test incorporates additional criteria, such as strength and endurance. Because this test measures the ability to perform a task, it is considered a work capacity test. The Pack Test consists of walking a flat course carrying a weighted pack. The distance and weight of the back depend on the fitness level the participant is testing for: arduous, moderate or light. An advantage of the test is that it is similar to actual fireline work. Since it simply measures a person's ability to do the job, there is no adjustment for age, weight or gender. A disadvantage of the test is that it requires more time and equipment to administer. Additional information.

Minimum Fitness Standards
Each agency or organization sets its own standards for fitness, although many federal agencies adhere to the standards set by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Some agencies are in a state of transition as they incorporate the Pack Test into their programs. The following standards are accepted by many agencies. Prescribed fire fitness levels are lower because they tend not to require such prolonged periods of hard work. (Keep in mind that many federal agencies call in firefighter-qualified crews if a prescribed burn becomes a wildfire.)

 

Test Wldifire Suppresion (NWCG) Prescribed Burning
1.5 Mile Run 11 minutes, 40 seconds or less 12 minutes, 45 seconds or less
Pack Test 3 miles; 45lb. pack, 45 minutes

2.5 miles; 25lb. pack, 30 minutes


Preparing to Take the Test
If you are over age 40 and physically inactive, you should consult your doctor and embark on a training program before attempting any of the physical fitness tests. The publication Fitness and Work Capacity (Second Edition, USDA Forest Service, Missoula Technology and Development Center; 9751-2814-MTDC) includes the PAR-Q questionnaire (page 42) designed to identify individuals who should seek medical advice before involvement in moderate activity. It is also an excellent resource for information on nutrition, muscular and aerobic fitness, stretching and conditioning exercises, and how to take the Pack Test. Even those who are physically fit will benefit from some training with the various tests.

Publications
Fitness and Work Capacity, 2nd edition. This recent NWCG publication provides broad coverage of the topic. It includes sections on aerobic and muscular fitness as they relate to work capacity, nutrition and environmental factors, and health and safety. It provides instructions for conducting the Pack Test, and detailed training programs for conditioning to pass the test.

This publication can be purchased from the National Interagency Fire Center (phone 208-387-5542, fax 208-387-5573). The reference number is NFES 1596.

 

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