Student researcher

Joel Dunstan Research Leader

Firefighting is a sporadically dangerous and physically demanding occupation that involves activities which stress muscular strength and endurance, and aerobic and anaerobic energy systems (Taylor et al. 2015). Often these activities are performed in extreme environmental conditions with exposure to temperatures ranging from 100◦C to 300◦C (Horn et al. 2018). Workers compensation claim rates for lower body injuries per 1000 covered workers revealed that between 2004 and 2006 Australian Firefighters had injury rates over seventeen times that of other occupations (Gray & Collie 2017). Although these rates have gradually reduced over time, they remained over seven times higher than other occupations between 2010 and 2012 (Gray & Collie 2017).

During the period between 2017 and 2018 there were 147 injury claims submitted by South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service (SAMFS) employees, resulting in a gross workers compensation expenditure of $3, 267, 807 or approximately 1.5% of the organisations total expenditure for the financial year. Based on recruitment numbers provided by the SAMFS, the incidence rate for the 2017/2018 financial year was 113 injuries per 1000 workers (South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service 2019). Nationally in Australia over the same period, the highest rates of injury were reported among Technicians and Trades workers at a rate of 72 injuries per 1000 workers (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2018), meaning the injury rate in the SAMFS is 1.5 times higher than the reported rate among Technicians and Trades workers which highlights the high human and financial cost of injury among the SAMFS.

Given the challenging physical demands and increased injury risk encountered in firefighting occupations, numerous fire service organisations have developed pre-employment physical aptitude tests (PA tests) to ensure new applicants can meet the physical demands of the role before they are employed. This requirement ensures their workforce is physically capable of performing their occupational roles without undue risk to both the individual and their fellow workers (Tipton, Milligan & Reilly 2013), in addition to providing effective service to the communities they serve.  Relatively few PA tests have been established using a scientific and systematic approach, such as those employed in the development of the Fire and Rescue New South Wales and Canadian pre-employment PA tests (Taylor et al. 2015). However, a large number of fire service organisations have developed PA tests in a more ad hoc fashion evolving the tests over time to suit their needs. When developing these tests, it has been established that they should be free of systematic bias that unfairly exclude populations from gaining employment on the basis of age, gender or ethnicity (Shephard 1991).

Paradoxically, while PA tests are now used by all professional fire service organisations across Australia (Walker et al. 2014), once an individual has been employed, none of these organisations currently test their employees to ensure they are maintaining an appropriate level of fitness. Walker and colleagues (2014) demonstrated that significant age-related declines in both strength and aerobic capacity occur in Australian firefighters particularly for the 45 to 54-year-old age group, this was also reflected in completion time for two occupational task simulations. The decline in physical fitness over time may impact on firefighter’s readiness to perform tasks over time. On-going fitness assessments may help to minimise the risk of injury by ensuring workers are able to safely meet the demands of the occupation (Walker et al. 2014).

In an effort to reduce injury and illness in firefighters the National Council for Fire, Emergency and Land Management in Australia and New Zealand, The Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC) provided health and fitness recommendations for its associated fire service organizations in 2002. The recommendations provide a framework with which fire and emergency service organisations can monitor and assess the health and physical fitness of career and volunteer firefighters and include regular Physical Performance Assessments. Consistent with these recommendations the SAMFS is committed to creating an evidence-based in-service fitness evaluation for use by its employees.

This research project aims to develop the aforementioned fitness evaluation. This will involve numerous steps including a retrospective cohort study of injury reports recorded by the SAMFS from 2011 to 2018, determination of critical tasks specific to South Australian Metropolitan Firefighters, the creation of a preliminary fitness evaluation and establishing the physical and physiological demands associated with the fitness evaluation battery.