Ohio firefighters face discipline for lack of exercise

The rule requires firefighters to engage in a fitness regiment eight out of 10 days

By Natalie Trusso Cafarello
The Blade

SYLVANIA TOWNSHIP, Ohio — Sylvania Township officials plan to discipline firefighters who aren't exercising enough on the job.

The township administration and its firefighters union talked for more than year about a physical fitness policy, but when no agreement was reached and some department employees had low participation in exercising, the township imposed a policy that requires its firefighters to undertake a fitness regimen for one hour on at least eight of every 10 working days.

The township fire department provides services for Sylvania and the township and has 57 firefighters and paramedics.

The policy prompted the union to file a grievance, which is in its early stages of resolution.

"One of the things that has been determined is the physical health and well being of firefighters is something everyone is concerned about," fire Chief Jeffrey Kowalski said. "If they have to go into a burning building and carry someone out, if they have to perform the Jaws of Life at a car accident, it is important they are fit. We want to ensure they can do the strenuous tasks during rescue."

Although township administration officials said part of enforcing the policy is taking disciplinary action, Mr. Kowalski said department officers have not written up anyone because the department wants to increase participation through conversation with the individuals first. He said there has been increased participation in the last month; however, the department's goal is uniform participation.

The department does not require the firefighters to take an annual physical fitness test as some departments do. Deputy Chief Mike Ramm said physical fitness tests are required when firefighters apply for certifications, such as for hazardous materials.

Such an exercising requirement is not imposed by the Toledo Fire and Rescue Department, said Deputy Chief Rick Syroka. The topic does come up at union contract negotiations but defining "healthy living" is left up to the employee, he said.

The fitness of firefighters is a concern because each year more than 100 firefighters in the United States die from heart attack or stroke. The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that more than 700,000 firefighters work for departments with no program to maintain basic health.

Susan Wood, assistant administrator for Sylvania Township, said that low participation in physical fitness has been discussed with the union officials for about two years.

Every quarter, the administration reviews participation levels and discusses the lack of physical training by some firefighters with fire Lt. Chris Nye, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2243 which represents the township firefighters.

Ms. Wood said that all firefighters use the fitness equipment installed at the four fire stations, but participation is low for some employees, as little as eight to 12 hours per quarter. The administration wants one hour of physical training for 80 percent of the days on duty. Lieutenants at each station are responsible for managing the day's educational and other trainings, which are done when time permits outside of fire and emergency runs. The township does not specify what type of physical fitness is to be done.

She said the administration warned Lieutenant Nye in May that, if participation did not increase, discipline would begin.

The disciplinary process begins with a verbal warning, but can escalate to a suspension without pay or even termination.

The union filed a grievance over the matter last month. Lieutenant Nye declined to comment on the grievance or policy. The grievance states that the "employer" violated the union contract by implementing a participation rate, a "substantial change in the contract."

It says the contract specifies participation in the wellness program as a "goal of one hour of time per shift [24 hours]" and that participation in physical training is as the "day will allow."

Trustee Chairman John Jennewine said 80 percent is the target rate because the township understands that a firefighter's schedule is irregular. He said that 100 percent would not necessarily be attainable.

"If you are out fighting a fire in 90 degree heat, you are not going to come back and want to get on the treadmill for an hour," he said.

Asked whether some of the firefighters are out of shape, Mr. Jennewine declined to comment. He said the township is dedicated to the employees' overall well being.

The fire department has added $66,000 worth of fitness equipment at its stations since 2005, mostly paid for with a federal grant.

The department also has a wellness program, which includes three peer fitness trainers who can help employees with a training regimen. It paid $2,000 apiece for the employees to receive that certification, Ms. Wood said.

Fire Chief Kowalski has denied the grievance as has the township board of trustees. Ms. Wood said the administration is in talks with Lieutenant Nye to resolve the complaint. If the parties do not come to an agreement, an arbitrator will be brought in.

Asked about whether she is concerned about the physical fitness of the firefighters who are responsible for fighting blazes in the city of Sylvania, City Councilman Mary Westphal, chairman of the council's safety committee, declined comment. She said the city has nothing to do with running the fire department.


(c)2014 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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