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Tactical Facilitators in Firefighting

by John I. Hofman, MS, CSCS, TSAC-F
TSAC Report January 2015

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Advice and guidance for firefighter-specific TSAC practitioners and trainers, including steps to building a health and wellness program for firefighters.

In today’s world we have a variety of coaches in almost every field imaginable, but what does it actually mean to be a coach? The modern day form of coaching as defined by its practitioners is a creative partnership where a process is used to help inspire a person to maximize their potential. So where did the word actually come from? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the first known use of the word was in about 1556. Some historians believe the word derived from a small town of Kocs, Hungary, where a wheeled carriage was powered by horses called a kutsche. As time progressed, so did this mode of transportation, eventually making its way to English-speaking countries where they formed the word coach. By the nineteenth century, the word coach began to take on another meaning. Just as the carriage offered protection while taking someone to their destination, so did the private tutor or instructor within the educational setting where instructors were “guiding” the students through their classes. In other words, a coach is actually a teacher.

Many coaches have different roles within their respective fields. A certified strength and conditioning coach educates and train athletes for the purpose of improving sports performance. A fitness coach/personal trainer will provide instruction and assistance for the purpose of reaching personal health and fitness goals. A financial coach will focus on making sound advice or guidance for those seeking financial security. What about a certified coach in the tactical field? These are also referred to as tactical facilitators. The purpose of this article is to help define the role of the tactical facilitator and to offer suggestions and strategies on how to become successful within the firefighting community.

Who Are You Coaching?


A firefighter can be defined as someone who is responsible for going directly to the scene of an accident or emergency to provide assistance. The life of a firefighter is often difficult, both professionally and personally, which can have a profound effect on their wellbeing. No one questions the strenuous, hazardous, and stressful aspects of the job, but it must be understood by the tactical facilitator that nobody calls for help unless there is something wrong.

Because of this, a firefighter will develop a very strong bond with other firefighters. This “inner circle” creates barriers for those on the outside, which makes it difficult for the tactical facilitator to help. To truly be successful, the tactical facilitator needs to spend countless hours asking questions, listening attentively, and getting involved with as many drills as possible. A tactical facilitator should be seen and not heard, and should respect the privacy of the firefighters. The overall goal is to gain their trust and respect above everything else. No matter how well-designed or prepared a program may be, without the buy-in, the program will not work.

There are many well-educated fitness professionals who work with firefighters, yet find it is difficult to gain access into their culture. Because of this disconnect, it becomes difficult for the tactical facilitator to truly help them. There are numerous resources in helping the tactical facilitator develop successful programs within the firefighter community (e.g., International Association of Firefighters: Wellness Fitness Initiative and National Fire Protection Agency 1582 and 1583), but none explain how a tactical facilitator can engrain his or herself into the fire department—which is the key to a successful program.

All too often the same question gets asked, “What I can do to get them to listen to me?” What many tactical facilitators may not realize is that they are working with a unique culture, yet a culture that is similar to many athletic teams. The fire service is the same all across the country, while each department is different from one another. A good comparison would be National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Football; the schools in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) are different than the schools in the Pacific-12 Conference (PAC-12). Both play football, yet both have different traditions and identities. The fire service is very similar; they all put out fire, but what kinds; do they fight structure fires or wild-land fires? Are they made up of full-time employees, volunteers, or both? Knowing these facts will only help the tactical facilitator understand the department better.

Once a tactical facilitator has established what type of fire department they are working with, they can now progress into what type of tactics they practice. How many firefighters make up a company? How many companies are there? What are their shift schedules? How about call volume? Some fire departments have three-man companies while others have six, etc. Shift schedules are important when talking about exercise versus recovery, and the call volume will reveal if the firefighters have time to exercise or not. Maybe they are at a busy station and there is not enough time to exercise. The tactical facilitator needs to research these facts so they can develop a fitness program according to the specifics each fire department needs.

Knowing the department and tactics is just laying the foundation. Now the tactical facilitator needs to get involved with firefighting activities. It is very important that the strength coach participate in as many fire drills as possible to understand the physiological demands required, as well as the biomechanical patterns used during fire suppression. During these drills, the tactical facilitator will be exposed to the type of equipment utilized by the firefighters. Are they using wood ladders or aluminum? Do they hose 2.5 in. hose of 1.75? Do they ventilate with an ax or a saw? Understanding these specific activities will allow the tactical facilitator the ability to apply his/her knowledge according to the firefighter’s job duties.

Finally, the most important thing is to understand your firefighters. Who are they? Why did they become a firefighter? How long have they been a firefighter? Some firefighters are ex-athletes or ex-military personnel, some still compete at a high level, while others have very little previous exercise experience. A tactical facilitator needs to understand who their athletes are and what motivates them. Too often we think that all firefighters are in excellent shape; there are many who are not and tactical facilitators need to help them as well. An excellent way for a tactical facilitator to accomplish this is by going on ride-alongs with the firefighters. It will expose the tactical facilitator to live fire activities, allow them to train with different crews, and provide a better understanding of the culture that surrounds the fire station. In essence, it will help establish the positive relationship needed between a firefighter and a tactical facilitator, and therefore help in creating a successful program.

Fitness and Firefighters


It has been well-documented that the job of a firefighter is physically demanding and that fitness plays an important role, yet many departments do not have a health and wellness program in place. Even worse, many firefighters do not see the need for fitness. It is not unusual to hear things such as, “What does running 1.5 miles have to do with my job?” When in reality, it has a lot to do with it. The modern fire department trains and develops its personnel to meet a variety of emergencies including swift water rescues, urban search and rescues, and defensive tactics. Each of these have their own unique physical fitness preparation needs, some greater than others.

Because the degree of physical effort required for a given incident varies, some more strenuous than others and some more frequent than others, complacency can become an issue in reducing preparedness of a firefighter to be ready for a physically demanding call. While physical fitness is essential for firefighters, it must be coupled with sound tactics and training to maximize the abilities to do their job. Nevertheless, emergencies do occur, and events requiring strenuous physical effort will happen and when they do, a firefighter must be ready to meet the challenge—regardless of the lapse of time between multiple strenuous calls.

The Role of the Tactical Facilitator

Knowledge is Key

The field of tactical training is new and hence, difficult to define. Even more difficult to define is the job description of the tactical facilitator. Unlike many professional or college settings, a tactical facilitator will often be alone so they need to have a good understanding of different methodologies and philosophies. Most departments have limited budgets and will not have an athletic training team, rehabilitation team, or strength and conditioning staff. Because of that, a tactical facilitator will need to get a better understanding within each area.

Not only does a tactical facilitator need to understand the physical demands of the job, but they must be well versed in different training modalities, nutritional concepts, and certain psychological areas. A tactical facilitator will not be working with a specific age group (e.g., high school, college, etc.), or a specific sport, but rather those between the ages of 18-75 years old within different job-specific subgroups (e.g., Urban Search and Rescue (USAR), hazardous materials (HAZMAT), etc.).

In addition, a tactical facilitator will also be working with a population that ranges between 50 members (small department) to 1,500 members (large department). This necessitates having a large “tool box” to work from because services to an 18-year-old may be different than a 50-year-old. Knowing the job will help you understand how the job has impacted their health and wellness. For example: the 50-year-old has been on the job for long time and is probably getting ready to retire. Their goal could be to retire healthy and without pain; whereas, the 18-year-old’s goal may be to become stronger and build endurance to perform at a higher level at the start of their career.

Most fitness professional may be well versed in the basics such as program design, lifting mechanics, and basic nutrition. However, they may not be educated in others areas such as heart disease, sleep disorders, and medical screening programs. These play a vital role in any successful health and wellness program. A tactical facilitator should know more than just the basics and continue to education themselves within other areas that firefighters encounter on a regular basis. For example, it is not uncommon to have firefighters awake all night, which increases their levels of cortisol and can disrupt their metabolic system and lead to other health issues.

Lastly, a high IQ is important during undergraduate and graduate work, as it shows proficiency at the job. It helps a tactical facilitator to make intelligent training programs and understand theories, but emotional intelligence (EQ) is just as important for a tactical facilitator. EQ refers to the ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions. It is the ability to understand other people, what motivates them, and how to work cooperatively with them. Too often tactical facilitator will overlook this and lose that important aspect by not understanding the department and the firefighter.

As a tactical facilitator, you may have to understand why a firefighter is requesting to see you. Is it because they just want to vent? Is it because they want to talk about something important but cannot seem to find a way to discuss it? Or is it that they are just killing time? Understanding why a firefighter has requested to see you is important to understand and that requires a high level of empathy. Never be critical of the firefighter, but rather, always remain positive and supportive. A tactical facilitator may not realize they had a horrible rotation and are exhausted.

Communication and Relationships

One of the most important skills any coach can have is their ability to effectively communicate. A tactical facilitator will need to speak effectively to a broad array of people, from fire chiefs, to city administrators, to union representatives, as well as firefighters themselves. Each person coming to speak with a tactical facilitator will be seeking different things, such as: how are the injury rates? How is the program doing? How are the fire recruits performing? What can I do for my back injury? These are all common examples of questions a tactical facilitator might hear on a daily basis.

What is even more important than just providing answers is the understanding of how certain exercises relate to a firefighter’s job. Just like teaching an Olympic-style lift, a tactical facilitator’s words have to be effective, specific, and relatable. A firefighter does not want to hear that a single-leg squat will make them run faster, but rather, that it is more specific to their needs because they work in unstable environments often on one leg. Again, knowing the job will help you communicate your program more effectively and how it is meeting their needs, which in turn will provide better buy-in.

Another important aspect that often gets overlooked is the inner workings of the department, city/district, and union. Knowledge of the union officials, worker compensation, and risk managers are all vital to the success of a program. A tactical facilitator must develop professional relationships with these individuals and must be willing to negotiate on certain aspects of the program. Issues such as “mandatory versus voluntary” are often discussed when dealing with the union, and “what is allowed and not allowed in the fire house in regard to fitness” is another common issue when dealing with workers compensation. In regard to the firefighters, find out who is passionate towards health and wellness, create a fitness committee to help you promote the program—remember it is not “your” program, but rather “our” program.

In addition, these members will also be able to help you with other tasks such as new purchases of fitness equipment, maintenance schedules, and recruit training. Let the members be your eyes and ears of the department, and always seek their input. Along the same line, create a network of fitness professionals outside the department who you can rely on any time. As previously stated, you will most likely be working alone, so having others around you will be very beneficial. It is not a matter of “if” I get a problem I do not understand but rather “when.” When dealing with 500 firefighters, it is nearly impossible to know everything, so having a network of other professionals to turn to for help will not only make you a better tactical facilitator but your firefighters will respect you even more.

Finally, be professional; be kind, be courteous, and show gratitude. It is truly an honor to work the fire service. Remember the quote by Nelson Mandela “Lead from the back and let others believe they are in front.” This is important to understand in building the relationship with firefighters. Tactical facilitator’s job is to help, not to hurt. You are not there to be buddies or one of the firefighters so do not hang out in the fire house or get caught up in fire house gossip. Always call the fire captain or most senior firefighter before arriving at a station and ask if you can come over.

If asked why you are coming to visit, give the reason, state a firefighter requested me. Never use names as it will build trust with others; this shows respect to not only the firefighter but also the fire house. Upon entering the fire station, always hold yourself to the highest standard; do not disgrace their workplace by walking around or sitting down. Sit down only when asked and always address the firefighter by rank, (i.e., chief, captain, engineer, etc.) again this shows respect. It is important for the tactical facilitator to keep everything professional because when you start to become successful, they will reach out to for help. Even as you build up this bond, keep in mind that everything must remain confidential. So it is wise not to place yourself into a situation that could do harm to anyone. Do not sell products of any kind to them; you are not there to profit off them. If they want something, they will know how to find it; if they respect you, they will ask your opinion.

Summary

Entering into the role of a tactical facilitator within the fire service is often difficult. The market is starting to emerge, yet many departments still do not have a coach to oversee their program. The highest priority is to understand both the physical and emotional side of the fire service. There are actually three sides for the tactical facilitator to understand:

Physical Fitness and Nutrition

1. Physical Fitness and Nutrition: Understanding the biomechanics of a firefighter and how specific exercises will help combat 30 years on the job. Providing specific exercises that will not only enhance performance, but also reduce injuries. Offer sound nutritional advice on a variety of topics such as weight loss, heart disease, diabetes, hydration, and recovery.

2. Emotional: Creating and/or being a part of a peer support network that will help those suffering from a traumatic experience. Understanding how to operate under stressful environments and how to effectively communicate to those suffering from mental stress.

3. Work Place Health and Safety: Understanding how to change the culture so that wellness becomes accepted. Overcoming barriers of distrust by administrators or officials by identifying hurdles that may have been created by past experiences. Manage and select appropriate strategies to negotiate through those barriers to ensure success.

As a tactical facilitator, your methodology and philosophy should be flexible. Keep an open mind because as the job changes, so does the program. Promotions, retirements, and new hires will change the scope of the field. Develop relationships in and out of the fire service, and spend more time listening rather than talking. The job of the tactical facilitator is to teach the importance of health and wellness and care for the firefighter. The best way to do this is by sharing your knowledge, not preaching it. The tactical facilitator within the fire service gives the health and wellness program an identity, something the firefighters can come to for help. In the end, the job is simply “taking care of the firefighter.”

Resources that all tactical facilitators should be familiar with:
• International Association of Firefighters (IAFF): Wellness Fitness Initiative (WFI)
• National Fire Protection Agency 1582 and 1583

Developing a Fire Department Health and Wellness Program: A 10-Step Process

1. Understand the players: Union, senior staff, and administrators, and begin developing those relationships. As a tactical facilitator your job is to bridge the gaps.

2. Perform ride-alongs with each shift and battalion. Develop a relationship with the firefighters. Ask questions, listen attentively, and participate in as many drills as possible.

3. Develop a fitness committee: Find out who is passionate toward fitness and ask for their input.

4. Perform a needs analysis of the department: The best method to get started is often to conduct a survey. Make sure no names are required and it will remain confidential. This will help you to find out the real attitude toward health and wellness as a whole.

5. Develop a model program and plan for future implementation to suit the unique needs and structure of the department. Do you begin with a medical screening program or simply just the fitness component? What equipment is available? What funds are available?

6. Provide your firefighters education about how to motive themselves, nutrition and practical exercise principles, and about the overall program.

7. Assess fitness levels: Select appropriate assessments (not tests) that will help not only those in good shape but also those out of shape; IAFF WFI is a great start.

8. Promote the program via monthly newsletters and special events.

9. Maintain contact with the firefighters in the field and provide instruction, support, and motivation. Show them you care.

10. Maintain records on each firefighter but do not allow access to these records.Analyze the data to ensure that the program is moving forward. Provide feedback to the firefighter on how to improve or maintain their level of fitness. Always keep records and any information pertaining to firefighter confidentiality.

This article originally appeared in TSAC Report, the NSCA’s quarterly, online-only publication geared toward the training of tactical athletes, operators, and facilitators. It provides research-based articles, performance drills, and conditioning techniques for operational, tactical athletes. The TSAC Report is only available for NSCA Members. Read more articles from TSAC Report 

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John is considered of the leading experts in the field of Public Safety Health, Wellness, and injury prevention programs. For over past 10 years he wa...

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