Humans over Hardware: A Growing Fire Department Puts Its People First


By Kayla Schmit

Firefighting is hard work. As a strength and conditioning professional, it’s one thing for me to understand the physiological demands of the job from a science and research perspective, but it’s another entirely to experience it. The first time I donned personal protective equipment (PPE) and a self-contained breathing apparatus and performed the tasks of a firefighter was a humbling experience. When I had the chance to gear up and tackle the department Work Performance Evaluation (WPE), it opened my eyes to the challenges of the job and how I approach programming for tactical athletes. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work every day with those who serve others in a progressive agency with leadership that values the well-being of their members.

As the resident human performance specialist for the Frederick County (MD) Division of Fire and Rescue Services (DFRS), I get to be involved in every aspect of the department’s wellness and human performance programs – and it all starts with the recruit academy. Every morning here at Public Safety Place, we start our day with the pledge of allegiance. From there, with hydration packs on our backs and heart rate monitors strapped around our chest, we start our daily physical training. As the recruits participate in their performance training, current career staff who are certified personal fitness trainers join in on the workouts also. Frederick firefighters take great pride in leading from the front and showing the new members what is expected of them. Here we expect recruits as well as career staff to be able to perform the same demands of the job, whether they have one day or 30 years on with the department.

From 30,000 feet, Frederick County DFRS is a rapidly growing organization that prides itself on being committed to protecting life, property, and the environment by providing professional, efficient, and quality service to Maryland’s largest county, with 667 square miles of land and water. There are more than 500 uniformed employees within the Frederick County Fire and Rescue Division that staff 29 stations. Following a population boom in the early 2000s, DFRS needed to quickly increase staffing levels to accommodate an exponentially growing population. Frederick County began to expand its staffing to meet these needs by running successive recruit classes until around 2008. After a few slower years, in 2014 Frederick County began an extraordinary hiring endeavor. Frederick County DFRS received two AFG SAFER grants that allowed for the hiring of five recruit classes in addition to regularly budgeted positions. As a result, staffing of the training academy was increased to meet the additional demand, and a thorough review of past practices was undertaken to enhance training and safety.

Department wide, Frederick County DFRS is driving a culture shift that emphasizes the importance of health and wellness. For many members, the prioritization of their physical and mental well-being is a new concept. However, this department is taking the necessary steps at the right time. With a fairly young population—about 60 percent of the department has five years or fewer in the fire service—and approximately 90 new recruits hitting the floor this year, now is the time for action! The leadership here is capitalizing on this opportunity.

At the basic training level, recruits are introduced to a comprehensive human performance curriculum at the beginning of the academy and are exposed to the training program daily throughout the 28-week program. Our team quickly became involved with the recruit academy and developed a 28-week training program designed to prepare the recruits for a long and healthy career in firefighting. Along with the physical training, new recruits learn about healthy nutrition habits, stress management, and recovery. This program aims to be the foundation for a long and healthy career.

To create effective training programs, a human performance specialist must understand the physiological demands of firefighting. Programs designed for tactical athletes should include exercises to reduce the risk for injury, enhance strength, endurance, and functional agility that transfers to job-specific demands. These demands include but are not limited to lifting, carrying, dragging, hauling heavy equipment, pulling fire hose, performing forcible entries, victim rescues, and performing search and rescue maneuvers in full PPE.

The 28-week human performance program for Frederick County DFRS is organized into three phases, each consisting of about nine weeks. To maximize human performance for this department and to prevent overtraining and reduce the risk of injury, we customized the program to follow an undulating periodization plan throughout each week to match up with the fire training curriculum schedule. Most of the equipment used for this program includes sandbags, hose bundles, tires, weighted bars, hoselines, PPE, and other various fireground equipment.

During Phase 2 and 3, we slowly introduce the recruits to training in PPE. The gear they will wear as a career firefighter limits their overall range of motion and is an external load they may not be accustomed to. By slowly integrating training in PPE, the recruits learn how to move efficiently and effectively so they can perform optimally and reduce the risk of injury. This program has been rolled out in phases with three recruit classes so far with great feedback from the participants. Following a more thorough data analysis, I’ll be sharing the outcomes in a follow-up article.

In parallel to the efforts in the recruit academy, I’m working with firefighters in the field to implement on-duty physical fitness routines, healthy firehouse cooking, and an overall assessment of the health of the force through body composition analysis, self-reported surveys, and movement analysis. This data will help the leadership at DFRS and I to shape the department program to target the areas of most need. Frederick County DFRS leadership understands that being fit for duty is the most basic requirement for firefighters.

“Now, more than ever, members can explore an internal resource to seek advice on work-outs for specific areas, combating injuries and nutritional advice, thus taking individual research and guesswork out of the equation.”

BC Frank Malta

At the end of the day, a firefighter’s lifestyle choices and physical fitness directly affect the lives of the citizens, other fellow firefighters, and their family members. Chief Tom Coe and the Frederick County Department of Fire and Rescue Services is ensuring the department has the necessary resources for optimal job performance.

Kayla Schmit is an O2X Human Performance on-site specialist for Frederick County, Maryland. Her role there is to provide a full-time performance resource to the members of the Frederick County DFRS aimed at reducing injuries, enhancing durability, and improving the performance of members. Supported by a team of more than 150 human performance specialists from around the country, Kayla works with DFRS members daily to implement the O2X EAT SWEAT THRIVE methodology into department life. Kayla has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from Winona State University with a minor in nutrition (2016) and a master’s degree in kinesiology and outdoor recreation: sports performance and conditioning from Southern Utah University (2019).