When it comes to fitness, and cross-training, the firefighters of Eagle County put most mountain athletes to shame.
One day, a workout might involve short, exhaustive bursts of exercise—like humping 75 pounds of gear up a staircase in scorching temperatures—the next, a grueling miles-long backcountry march shouldering a 45-pound pack, followed by an hours-long session of swinging a five-pound Pulaski axe, digging a fire line trench. If you think that sounds tiring, try doing the same with a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) strapped to your face. Then there’s race day. Instead of a warmup stretch and a shot from a starting pistol, it begins with the blare of a klaxon (typically in the middle of the night), and a sprint from a dead sleep to wide awake and ready to roll in less than two minutes.
That regimen may sculpt the fantasied firefighter physique, but the mental and physical stress of being ready to respond to any emergency at any moment during the typical 48-hour shift can exact its toll on even the fittest in any company. Never mind the risks of charging into a burning building: firefighters are far more likely to die from a cardiac event like a heart attack, which accounts for roughly half of all firefighter fatalities, eclipsing the rate for the general population (heart disease accounts for only one in seven civilian deaths in the United States). “They’re not taking care of their bodies in the same way an athlete would, where they’re resting well and they’re warming up and cooling down properly,” explains Lieutenant Jenny Hochtl of the Eagle River Fire Protection District (ERFPD). “Firefighters are notoriously dehydrated (they drink too much coffee), their ambient level of stress is higher than the normal person just because of their work schedules and what they see, and when you do sleep during your 48 hours on, it’s a totally different sleep than when you’re off duty.”
Most on the force would laugh when asked what a typical day is like, as an average day on the job in ERFPD’s territory (which stretches from Tennessee Pass near Camp Hale to Wolcott) is anything but routine. When not involved with meetings, vehicle and building maintenance, and public relations visits, firefighters at Avon’s new Buck Creek firehouse frequently are called to respond to accidents on the interstate, while the company quartered at Station 11 in Beaver Creek often responds to calls involving medical emergencies on the mountain. Add the occasional early-morning structure fire in Minturn (as in March), and early-season wildfire in Edwards (in April), and you begin to appreciate just how unpredictable a day (and night) on the job might be.
To deal with the ups and downs, the 60-person (Hochtl being the lone female) corps of the Eagle River Fire Protection District needs to train for the short-term demands of the job while keeping themselves fit to avoid the longer-term risks to cardiac health. As such, Hochtl oversees the department’s wellness and fitness group, a responsibility that involves everything from stocking station house gyms with kettle bells and free weights to organizing ERFPD’s mandatory fitness testing, which is part of a larger push by departments nationwide to respond to the growing concern over firefighters’ cardiac wellness—along with ensuring that they can handle the daily job requirements. At least once a year, ERFPD first responders report to Colorado State University’s human performance lab for a slew of tests that include fasting blood work, body composition tests (both skin-fold assessments and underwater weighing), and an EKG stress test to detect any cardiac anomalies while running at maximum heart rate on a treadmill. Then there’s the nationally recognized Work Capacity Test—also known as the “pack test”—that firefighters who battle wildland fires (e.g. pretty much everyone in our district) must complete within 46 minutes while wearing a 45-pound weighted vest—simulating the equipment they’d need to huff out on a wildfire call—and walking a distance that simulates the hike they’d do with their unit, in this case, three miles. The national standard mandates that participants finish the mileage in less than 45 minutes, but ERFPD personnel (who walk the test each year at Homestake Peak School’s track) get an extra sixty-second handicap to account for altitude. Since the district’s firefighters might be called upon to answer both types of emergencies, the tests make up the department’s minimum fitness standard, meaning that anyone in the department needs the aerobic capacity of an endurance athlete, while also being able to tackle shorter bursts of power-heavy work like a CrossFit champion (to date, no one in the department has failed either evaluation).