Robust Physical Fitness and Sharp Mental Alertness

Key Attributes of ARFF Crews to Ensure Passenger Safety at Aerodromes

By: Gp Capt. ER Rajappan (Retd)

 ICAO Annex 14 Chapter 9.2 stipulates Standards and Recommended Practices for Rescue and firefighting. As per ICAO document, “The principal objective of a rescue and firefighting service is to save lives in the event of an aircraft accident or incident occurring at, or in the immediate vicinity of an aerodrome”[1].  The most important factors bearing on effective rescue in a survivable aircraft accident are; the training received effectiveness of the equipment and the speed with which personnel and equipment designated for rescue and firefighting purposes can be put into use. The operational objective of the rescue and firefighting service should be to achieve a response time not exceeding two minutes to any point of each operational runway, in optimum visibility and surface condition.  However, Annex 14 is silent on the standards of Physical, Medical and Mental Fitness required for ARFF crews and it is left to contracting states to evolve its own standards and the policy on how to maintain the physical fitness through regular physical and mental fitness programs and their periodic evaluation.

Physical characteristics; such as height & weight, reach & strength, visual & hearing acuity may limit performance of highly a strenuous job such as aircraft fire fighting and rescue. Fortunately, these innate body characteristics remain relatively static overtime and individuals learn to

cope with the physical workout to offset the physical limitations and remain fit and robust. However, the minimum physical standards should be set by each country depending up on the race and average physical standards of the citizens of each nation which should be applied in personnel selection and during physical examinations[2].

When the alarm sounds indicating an aircraft accident or incident and aircraft rescue fire fighters (ARFF) are called to duty, they will draw all the skills they have learned through training and experience to save lives and to protect property. The skill of the ARFF crews alone is not sufficient for safe and fast rescuing of passengers for which they have to depend on their physical and mental strength. It is very much possible that an ARFF crew will work an entire career without having to respond to an aircraft accident involving mass casualty.

It is for this reason that airport fire fighters will have to rely on their physical fitness and training to prepare them for full spectrum aircraft emergencies, as more than half of the aircraft accidents take place on and in the vicinity of the airport.

In the history of civil aviation, there have been 1102 accidents/incidents with the first accident on 02 Aug 1919 in which a Caproni Ca.48 crashed  at Verona, Italy, during a flight from Venice to Taliedo, Milan, killing all 15 on board and the latest fatal accident which took place on January 16th 2017 involving the Turkish Airlines Flight 6491, a Boeing 747-400F, crashed  into a residential area upon attempting landing in thick fog in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan killing four crew members and 35 people on the ground.[3] .

With the increasing integration of safety into all systems of passenger planes, commercial aviation has become a relatively safe mode of transport, yet aviation accidents continue unabated and has recorded a significant increase in the last 15 years, with the average number of accidents in the world soaring to 12 from the late 90s figure of 08.

Irrespective of the efforts to enhance redundancy in the systems, aircraft accidents cannot be ruled out due to; the very nature of the complexity of the aero plane, the medium of operation (air in which various forms turbulent weather occur) and human error either in flying or maintenance of the aero plane.

In the event of a crash, in just a matter of three minutes the temperature in the passenger cabin can reach as high as 2,500F and furthermore, it only takes one minute before the aluminum skin is fully burnt out. Experiments have revealed that a typical   aircraft structure can only withstand an external fire for 30 to 60 seconds. Once the airframe catches fire, it only takes another two to three minutes before the temperature inside the cabin reaches 1,800F. The most significant threats to the cabin from the fire burn through are the intense heat, smoke, smoke obscuration and toxic fumes from the seats and furnishings, which quickly pyrolise and ignite.  The first five to ten minutes following the aircraft accident, is very crucial for the ARFF crews to fight the fire   and rescuing passengers.  This underscores the need for extreme physical fitness and mental alertness of the ARFF crews who would have to draw up on their physical strength and agility to rescue the passengers trapped in the aircraft on fire, many of whom may be seriously injured presenting gruesome scenes to the rescuers.

Challenges to ARFF Crews in 21st Century

ARFF dynamics had already become very complex with the induction of   large passenger aircraft like Airbus 360/Boeing 777 with average passenger capacity of 400 and the challenge became further compounded with the introduction of wide body 2 decker passenger aircraft- Airbus 380 carrying more than 800 passengers.

Soon, Airbus 390 and similar type of aircraft with 1000 passengers will take to the sky adding more woes to the already outstretched ARFF crews physical and mental alertness. While responding to an aircraft accident, ARFF crews spend more energy than the players in a football game. This assertion is supported by many studies that demonstrate the need for and benefits of high physical fitness of the ARFF crews.

Impact of Modern Life Style on ARFF Crews

The life style in 21st century is characterized by Information & Communication Technology and heavy use of smart phone, computer and sedentary life style. Eating high fat content food and lack of regular exercise lead to morbidity.  Addiction to smart phone and laptop takes away much of the time every day, leaving less time for indulgence in physical fitness exercise and mental exercises to cope with stress and mental alertness. While Civil Aviation Administration in many countries have included compulsory programs to maintain physical fitness of the ARFF crews, there is not enough stress on improving the mental alertness.

An ARFF crew’s functions include:

  • Carry out evacuation of people in life-threatening situations using mobile high-performance vehicles and watercraft.
  • Fight fires using a range of equipment, such as hoses, foam branches and monitors.
  • Administer first aid.
  • Protect property endangered by fires and protect the environment (as necessary) in an aircraft accident /incident.
  • Participate in organized drills for fire control and rescue work

In order to undertake these highly demanding tasks, ARFF crew needs to possess high physical fitness and mental alertness.

Physical Fitness Attributes of ARFF Crews

Department of Health and Human Services of USA defines physical fitness as “a set of attributes people have or achieve that relates to the ability to perform physical activity.” The five main components of physical fitness include; body composition, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and cardiorespiratory endurance.



ARFF crews need to possess high level of physical strength, stamina and long endurance to withstand high level of stress and gruesome scene to perform their functional responsibilities. Optimal fitness is a combination of lifestyle, nutrition, habits and most importantly indulgence in rigorous exercise regimen and mind control exercise such as yoga and meditation. The sudden, intense energy demand that is needed to respond to an aircraft accident is what puts the ARFF crew who is not in good physical condition in grave danger.

The major components of physical fitness of firefighters, their benefits and how they help a firefighter’s body to respond and act in the event of an aircraft accident are four-fold; body composition, cardio-respiratory endurance, flexibility and muscular fitness. These physical fitness attributes are discussed in detail in the succeeding paragraphs.

  • Body Composition. Body Composition is the makeup of the body in terms of relative percentages of body fat to fat-free mass (muscle and bone). A minimum amount of body fat is necessary to cushion and protect body organs from injury. These adipose tissues serve the important function of storing and releasing energy in response to metabolic demands. If one’s energy intake from eating exceeds your normal energy for daily activities including exercise, the excess energy is stored as body fat. Storage of excess fat enlarges cell size and can increase the number of fat cells in the body. Attaining a healthy body weight and maintaining it over one’s lifetime should be a goal of every member of the fire fighter.
  • Cardiorespiratory Endurance. Nothing is more important to overall health and fitness than cardiovascular fitness and endurance.

Cardiovascular exercise improves the ability of the lungs to provide oxygen and the heart and vessels to supply blood to the tissues. This type of fitness largely determines fire fighter’s ability to participate in highly strenuous physical activities for extended periods of time. Firefighting is a physically demanding occupation because they have to perform heavy physical labor under extreme physical and environmental conditions. Unlike manual jobs where most of the effort has been engineered out of manual handling tasks, firefighters must respond to an ever-changing set of environmental conditions for extended periods.  The demand for increased amount of oxygen that triggers the increase in heart rate or increase the cardiovascular fitness, a fire fighter must undertake a regular program of regular jogging or aerobic exercise at least for 45 minutes per day. Brisk walking, cycling, stair climbing, rope skipping, swimming, rowing, etc. are other exercises that can improve cardiorespiratory endurance of fire fighters.  Cardiovascular workout also lowers serum cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and blood pressure, thereby reducing the risk of potential threat of heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis, as well as many other ailments of fire fighters.

  • Flexibility and balance are critical factors in achieving peak physical potential, but they are often overlooked. Flexibility, the ability of a joint to move through its full range of motion, is extremely important for general fitness and wellness of a fire fighter.

By stretching tight muscles, tendons and ligaments ensure body balance even in high body imbalance positions. Flexibility is very important to firefighters whose work involves strenuous physical activity, restrictive areas, slippery or otherwise unsafe conditions, awkward and/or heavy loads, requirements for rapid movement, etc. Flexibility just doesn’t help firefighters work with less risk of injury but can also contribute to the following:

  • Increased physical efficiency and performance.
  • Increased circulation.
  • Increased neuromuscular coordination.
  • Improved balance and posture.
  • Reduced stress and tension.
  • Personal enjoyment.
  • Muscular Fitness. For the firefighters, good muscular fitness is absolutely essential for rescuing passengers, carrying hose, cutting and spreading tool and ladder heavy equipment to the aircraft on fire. Firefighting and rescue work frequently involve moving body into different positions; therefore, all muscles need to be strong at every position within every fire fighter’s normal range of motion. Muscular fitness encompasses three properties of muscle tissue:

  • Strength– the maximum amount of force a muscle can generate during a single contraction.
  • Power– the rapid generation of force, or the ability to move loads quickly.
  • Endurance– the ability of a muscle to perform repeated contractions for a prolonged period of time.

High demands of aircraft firefighting require a high degree of muscular fitness. Strength training produces new muscle tissue, which will enable the firefighter to generate force to perform job better and safer.

Physical Standards of ARFF Crews

An ARFF crew must rescue passengers ranging from an infant to adults with weight ranging from 60 to 150 kg.  Therefore, various states have different physical and medical standards for ARFF crews, but considering the physical attributes of various races across the world, the following minimum physical and medical standard will meet the functional responsibilities of airport firefighters:

  • Height 165 cm
  • Weight 56 kg
  • Chest normal 81 cm
  • Chest on expansion 86 cm
  • No flat foot, bow knees, knock knee
  • No squinting eyes and stammering
  • Eye sight 6/6

Physical Attributes Test of ARFF Crew

Candidates Physical Aptitude Test (CAPT) is designed to simulate the physical tasks of Fire Fighting. The demands of the CPAT test the candidate’s aerobic and anaerobic capacity, strength, endurance and mobility. A standard CAPT should be competed in 10 minutes 20 seconds and consists of:

  • Stair Climb
  • Hose Drag
  • Equipment Carry
  • Ladder Raise/Extension
  • Forcible Entry
  • Search
  • Rescue
  • Ceiling Breach/Pull

Throughout the test the candidate has to wear a 50-pound weighted vest, simulating the weight of the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (CBSA) and the rest of their protective gear. Descriptions of each section of the CPAT test in more detail are given below.  Though this is a standardized test, testing personnel, equipment, and course layout may differ between testing facilities. The distances between stations and the stations themselves remain unchanged.

  • Section 1: Stair Climb

This section starts with a 20-seconds warm up on the Stair mill.  After the 20-second warm up, 25-pounds of weight is added to the participant’s shoulders. The testing potion            starts when the testing staff says ‘Start’, and    consists walking for 3 minutes on a Stairmill, while wearing an additional 25-pound in addition to the           standard 50-pound weighted vest, at a cadence of 60 steps per minute.

  • Section 2: Horse Drag

Participants drag 200-foot hose line 75 feet and around a barrel, making a 90-degree turn. The participant then continues and additional 25 feet until they come to the Pulling station of the event, at which point they will drop to at least one knee and pull the hose line 50-feet.

  • Section 3: Carrying Equipment

During the Equipment Carry section participants will remove two Power Saws from an equipment shelf, removing them one at a time, and then proceed to carry them 75 feet to a turning point and then back to the starting position. Each saw weighs approximately 25 pounds.

  • Section 4: Ladder Raise & Extension

During this section, participants will raise a 24-foot aluminum extension ladder until it is still against the wall. Participants will then extend a second later by pulling on the rope fly until it has reached full extension, and then lower it back down in a controlled manner.

Section 5: Forcible Entry

Participants use a 10-pound sledgehammer and strike a horizontal target until the buzzer is activated.

  • Section 6: Search

This event requires participants to navigate through a 64-foot tunnel maze (dimensions: approximately 4-ft x 3-ft). The           maze consists of two 90-degree turn and multiple over/under obstacles and some narrow-space crawls.

  • Section 7: Rescue

Participants are required to drag a 165-pound mannequin, grasping the mannequin by handles on the harness, 35-feet and 180-degrees around a barrel. They then drag the mannequin for an additional 35 feet and entirely across the     finish line.

  • Section 8: Ceiling Breach & Pull

Participants will use a pike pole to raise a 60-pound hinged door 3 times and pull down an 80-pound hinged door 5 times. The participant will repeat this sequence for four sets.  Once the participant has completed section 8, they have finished the test and their time is recorded.[4]

Physical Fitness Tests

In order to ensure the physical fitness of the ARFF crews, make them to undergo the following tests yearly/six monthly and the timing can be set by Civil Aviation Authority each country:

  • High jump 4 ft and above
  • Long jump 15 ft and above
  • Chin up 8 times or more
  • Push up 20 times or more
  • Sit up 30 times or more
  • Running 2 km run in 7 minutes or less
  • Carrying load of 60 kg to 100 meters in less than 70 seconds
  • Rope climbing, 15 meters within 5 minutes

How to improve Physical Fitness & Mental Alertness

  • Functional Exercises

Some functional exercises which will enable the firefighter to prepare for the rigors of the firefighting are discussed below:

  • Squat – Stair and ladder climb, hose line operation.
  • Lunge – Stair and ladder climb, balance, coordination
  • Bench Press – Hose line operation, hand tool operation, and forcible entry
  • Standing Curl – Climbing, pulling yourself through tight places
  • Shoulder Press – Hose line operation, hand tool operation, pulling ceilings
  • Rowing – Hose line operation, heavy power tool operation.
  • Sit-up – Hose line operation, heavy power tool and overall strength in transport of heavy equipment
  • Push-ups – Hose line operation, hand tool operation.
  • Two-Mile Timed Run.

Fitness Management: Role of Individual Firefighter

Each firefighter needs to take an active role in managing his/her health by taking balanced diet, controlling weight, managing stress, stay away from substance abuse and personal safety. A healthy low-fat eating plan combined with regular physical activity is the key to good physical fitness.

Use of Gadgets for Monitoring Physical Fitness

There are host of electronic gadgets which can be used for monitoring physical fitness of firefighters:

  • Smartphone — Almost every firefighter has a smart phone. It takes very little space to add Calorie Counter/workout tracker app like MyFitnessPal or Fitocracy. These can be used to track calorie intake and activity levels. Fitocracy even provides a leveling system that adds a level of friendly competition.
  • Pedometer — Pedometer is available in most countries for a couple of dollars. Firefighter can keep track of steps on the job, off the job, or at home. A total of 10,000 steps per day, equivalent to five miles/eight km is considered a benchmark for firefighters. Make a quick spreadsheet and keep track of everyone’s steps and deliver an incentive at the end of the month.

Physical Fitness Evaluation

Maintaining physical fitness must be a continuous process and must form part of everyday routine of every ARFF crew.  In order to ensure each ARFF crew maintains the required physical fitness tests should be conducted regularly, the frequency of physical evaluation can be either every six/twelve months.

Fitness evaluation tests should include:

  • Pre-evaluation health questionnaire
  • Evaluation of aerobic capacity
  • Evaluation of muscular strength, endurance and
  • Flexibility
  • Operational fitness tests
  • Stair or ladder climbing while carrying an additional load
  • Ladder raise and extension
  • Equipment carry
  • Rescue drag
  • Operating in an enclosed space
  • Hose drill and operations
  • Operating in a high temperature environment with breathing apparatus.

Simulated operational physical fitness tests can also be done and the tests can comprise:

  • Muscular strength
  • Handgrip dynamometer;
  • Static bicep curl with weights
  • Lat pull
  • Static leg press with weights
  • Bench press
  • Leg press
  • Muscular endurance
  • Push-ups, Modified push-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • Bent knee sit-ups
  • Crunches in a given time
  • Flexibility
  • Sit and reach, Modified sit and reach
  • Trunk extension
  • Shoulder elevation

Improving Mental Alertness

Though accidents are part of aviation, but the occurrence of them is rare thanks to the safety embedded to every system in the aircraft, proficiency of the pilots who fly and engineers who maintain the aero plane.  While ARFF crews are always prepared and vigilant to respond to any mishap, many of them may not get a chance to fight a live fire and rescue passengers in their entire career.  ARFF crews’ job is thus highly demanding yet monotonous and this can lead to lowering of mental alertness.  Two methods by which the ARFF crews can maintain high level of mental alertness are discussed below.


If firefighters practice meditation, it will help their brain to restructure itself and become resilient to physical and mental stress. Meditation can help firefighters improve their ability to concentrate in firefighting in two ways:

  • First, it will enable them to achieve better at focusing on their functional tasks while ignoring distractions.
  • Second, it can make them more capable of noticing what is happening around them, giving them a fuller perspective on the present moment or to have better situational awareness.
  • Yoga
  • Practicing of Yoga will enhance firefighter’s strength, flexibility, balance and breath control are four of the many physiological and psychological benefits. Mental strength is also built through increasing mental focus applied throughout asana class.
  • Improve blood supply to brain and brain function. Contracting agonist and antagonist muscles while stretching is what helps make yoga effective at increasing flexibility. The physical practice of yoga offers a profound method for creating balance in the body.

Yoga   helps firefighters to achieve balance of strength and flexibility in all muscle groups, with special focus on proper body alignment. The other benefits of doing Yoga by firefighters are:

  • Improvement in lung capacity
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Make bones stronger
  • Maintain healthy weight
  • Lower the risk of heart attack
  • Improves Energy
  • Reducing neck and back pain
  • Lowering the blood sugar level

Physical Fitness Maintenance Program of ARFF crews should be a wellness program designed to promote physical fitness, mental alertness and a physically active lifestyle to ensure very high physical and mental ability as well as the  capacity to complete demanding tasks arising out of aircraft accidents and incidents.

Without the active involvement of all the stakeholders; the civil aviation organization of the state, the managerial and supervisory staff of the ARFF organization at each airport and the last link- the airport firefighter, it would not be possible to create and maintain a robust and efficient ARFF organization which can ensure safety of each passenger in the event of an aircraft accident or incident. Only by ensuring highest physical standards of the ARFF crews and periodical evaluation of their physical fitness and professional competency, the safety standards at each airport can be further improved.




About the Author:  Gp Capt. ER Rajappan (Retd) is a senior ARFF executive of the Indian Air Force with more than three decades of experience as Head of Airport and ARFF. He served as Airport Manager at many Indian Air Force bases wherein he initiated, executed and implemented various Aviation projects. He wrote many concept papers related to Aviation and in recognition of his professional excellence and contribution to improving the quality of ATS and ARFF, he was deputed to United Nations as Fire Marshal of Kindu airport in Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa from 2007 to 2008. Contact info:  or +919538804144


 [1] ICAO Annex 14 Chapter 9.2  2016 Edition