Abstract Background Sudden cardiac death is the leading cause of on-duty death in United States firefighters. Accurately assessing cardiopulmonary capacity is critical to preventing, or reducing, cardiovascular events in this population. Methods A total of 83 male firefighters performed Wellness-Fitness Initiative (WFI) maximal exercise treadmill tests and direct peak VO2 assessments to volitional fatigue. Of the 83, 63 completed WFI sub-maximal exercise treadmill tests for comparison to directly measured peak VO2 and historical estimations. Results Maximal heart rates were overestimated by the traditional 220-age equation by about 5 beats per minute (p < .001). Peak VO2 was overestimated by the WFI maximal exercise treadmill and the historical WFI sub-maximal estimation by ~ 1MET and ~ 2 METs, respectively (p < 0.001). The revised 2008 WFI sub-maximal treadmill estimation was found to accurately estimate peak VO2 when compared to directly measured peak VO2. Conclusion Accurate assessment of cardiopulmonary capacity is critical in determining appropriate duty assignments, and identification of potential cardiovascular problems, for firefighters. Estimation of cardiopulmonary fitness improves using the revised 2008 WFI sub-maximal equation.