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Wildland Firefighter Health and Safety
Recommendations of the April 1999 Conference

Individual Factors Related to Health, Safety, and Performance

Paul O. Davis, Ph.D.
Applied Research Associates

The ability to perform hard (arduous) work for protracted periods of time can be related to a number of physical and psychological factors. These factors can override demographic factors such as gender, race, or ethnicity. Some of these factors, listed in no particular order of importance, are:

Some of these factors are controllable, others are inherited, and still others change with the environment. Recognizing that we have no control over the environment, what factors can we address?

Photo of fire fighters.

With all of the published research on the benefits of regular exercise, you would think that people would embrace the concept that the human body was meant to be used. While we can’t guarantee that there’s a one-for-one relationship between fitness and longevity, for fit persons the quality of the life is clearly more vibrant and productive. The direct benefits to increased productivity on the job is well documented.

We might ask the same question of the well-established relationship between smoking and a host of diseases and disorders. Knowing what we do, why do people choose to do the things they do? Said another way, the physiological basis for improving performance and health is well known. What’s really needed is more research on how to motivate people to avoid selfdestructive behavior such as smoking or sedentary lifestyles.

In terms of demographic factors, research does not lend support to physical performance limitations based on race or ethnicity. Studies of gender differences indicate the obvious: women are, on average, smaller than men, and they have much less upper body strength (50 to 60% of the upper body strength of men). The average woman has a lower aerobic fitness (39 to 40 ml/kg-min for young women compared to 45 to 48 ml/kg-min for men. This means that when job demands are arduous, as they are for wildland firefighters, more women will have to train to be able to accomplish work tasks, while maintaining a reserve to meet unforeseen emergencies.


For the balance of this paper, I would like to examine a topic that has been of great personal interest to me: aging. Aging is relevant because all of us are on this planet together, and no one is getting off alive. We all have the same amount of time per day. We are basically captives of the 24-hour day.

Age has been used in making hiring decisions for many years. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) developed a protected class (persons from 40 to 70 years old). For persons within the portected class, employers could only use age for decision-making when they could show that it constituted a BFOQ (bona fide occupational qualification). Most of us operate on the principle that there is a decline in performance with advancing age. This is true. No one reverses the aging process, no matter what you may hear. But, we can certainly slow and temporarily halt the process by adhering to a well-established scientific principle called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).

What the GAS says is that if you don’t use a certain physiological system, you lose it. Conversely, if you use a system, it gets stronger. This is the underpinning of physical conditioning. If we stress a system to the point of fatigue, it rebounds and actually becomes stronger. Clearly, there are limits. All Olympic athletes strive to optimize all of their systems, allowing them to perform beyond any previously demonstrated level.

So what are the implications for wildland firefighters? Looking again at the factors that have been demonstrated to distinguish differences in work output and personal performance, alterations and improvements can be shown in the following areas:

Lean body weight is increased through physical exercise (strength or resistance training)

Fat weight (both total percent fat and total fat weight) is reduced, resulting in less “ dead weight” to be hauled around, reducing the burden on the heart to pump blood or otherwise support mass that is not contributing to productivity)

In Summary

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