Ga. fire department kicks off mandatory fitness program

The department hired a sports firm to train a team of firefighters to serve as in-department fitness experts


By Bianca Cain Johnson
The Augusta Chronicle

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Poor health of retired or past firefighters was an eye-opener for the Augusta Fire Department that prompted it to start a mandatory wellness program earlier this year.

The fire department had been making strides in improving firefighter safety with better and safer equipment, but physical fitness was something it needed to tackle, Deputy Chief Sterling Jones said.

Heart attacks are the leading cause of death of current and past firefighters. From 1990 to 2000, 44 percent of all firefighter deaths were from heart attacks, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Stress, sleep deprivation, constant high adrenaline levels, an environment of smoke and chemical exposure and unhealthy lifestyle all contribute to the issue.

The local fire stations all have weights and other fitness equipment but they were rarely, and in some cases never, used until recently, Jones said.

The new wellness plan, which went into effect in June, requires every firefighter to work out at least one hour per day while on duty. Titus Sports in Atlanta teamed up with the department to develop a plan and train 20 firefighters to become peer fitness trainers to lead daily exercises and help colleagues with any fitness-related issues.

All firefighters were required to have a physical before starting the program.

"When we started this they were apprehensive and had 9,000 questions," Battalion Chief James Freeman said.

Capt. Charlie Coleman agreed that some older firefighters believed the new mandate was a way to weed them out. But since it got started, everyone seems to be hanging in without complaint, he said.

Six fire crews convene at Station 19 on Brown Road in Hephzibah at 10 a.m. each day to work out. That crew is a little ahead of the curve, Freeman said. They opted to start their program nearly two years ago to get themselves ready for the 2014 requirements.

"It let us rev up a little slower," Coleman said.

Firefighters had barely begun their warm-up Wednesday morning when a fire alarm call went out. More than half of them stopped their exercises to get into their gear and head out. Those that stayed kept to the schedule, lifting weights and running on the treadmill.

When the firefighters returned they stepped straight from the fire engine and traded their boots for athletic shoes and started back where they left off.

Firefighter Omani Washington, who is the group's peer fitness instructor, said they don't do really strenuous exercises so they won't be exhausted if a call goes out. Most of the exercises focus on developing core strength.

Titus has developed a regimen for the stations, but some increase the workout by adding high intensity, CrossFit-style exercises and even training at the gym together before coming to work.

The fire department hopes the new program will also decrease injuries and workers compensation claims.

"I can tell you that for the last few years my knees used to give me a fit, but not anymore," Coleman said.

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(c)2014 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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