Augusta firefighters have the guts to run into burning buildings and battle flames for hours at a time.
Now the department is on a mission to make sure they have the heart health and endurance to do so as well.
As part of a new wellness fitness initiative launched by Augusta Fire Chief Chris James, all firefighters will be required to undergo yearly physicals beginning in June, something that has not been mandated since 2005. James also hired Titus Sports Academy to train 20 firefighters to become Peer Fitness Instructors, who will help the rest of the department with workouts and nutrition throughout the year.
“The No. 1 reason firefighters die across the country is cardiac arrest,” James said. “Waking up in the middle of the night to go to a call puts a lot of strain on them. It’s important we assure we’re not putting them in danger by asking them to do something they can’t physically do.”
Every firefighter, including the chief, will be required to take a physical in the month of their birthday starting next week. Until June 2014, when all employees will have completed a physical, participation in a new fitness program will be voluntary. After that, James will require each firefighter to work out at least one hour per day while on duty to stay healthy enough to save other lives.
The 20 newly trained peer fitness instructors will help the rest of the department as needed in keeping up with nutrition and workout goals as well as advising on proper stretches, mobility excises and safe falling techniques.
“It’s job readiness,” said Titus CEO Adam Faurot, whose company also works with law enforcement and military personnel. “They’re tactical athletes, so they need to have a culture knowing they’re tactical athletes and be able to perform their duties.”
Last week Titus also conducted base assessments on the 300 firefighters to record their starting height, weight, flexibility, grip strength and body mass index into an online program. Each firefighter will be able to access their online profile throughout the year to keep up with their statistics and design exercises and weight management goals, James said.
While most of the fire stations have some sort of workout equipment, firefighter Stephen Weddle, a new peer fitness trainer, said it’s historically been difficult for some employees to get motivated to work out.
“It’s a coat rack at a lot of the stations,” Weddle said of the treadmills and weight machines.
Those excited about the program are explaining to coworkers that the changes are a way to make sure firefighters are healthy enough to perform such strenuous work and are able to rescue others in a fire. However some said with the change has come a fear that the new requirements are a way to weed people out.
“There are some older guys who see this as a way to run them off,” said firefighter and peer fitness instructor Jay Myles. “Once they get information about what this is, they’ll realize it’s not about that.”
If a doctor determines a firefighter is not fit for duty after a physical, that employee will be given a time period to get healthy before returning to the field. James said the employee can be placed on light duty or on another assignment if one is available.
If not, the firefighter may have to use sick leave but would still be protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act, according to James.
“We don’t want to put anyone in danger after a doctor said they are not fit to fight fire,” he said.
Charles Masters, president of the Augusta Professional Firefighters Association, said the physicals and wellness initiative could be “very positive for the department if used correctly.”
The physicals, provided by University Health Services, will be the standard National Fire Protection Association 1582 - which is a top-to-bottom exam covering everything from blood analysis to vision tests.
Masters said not only will this physical make sure firefighters are healthy enough to work, it will also document effects the nature of firefighting has on the body for disability or workman’s compensation issues.
“If I come up with lung cancer at 42 and I’ve never smoked a day in my life, if I’ve had a physical every year, it’s going to be easier for me to say this job caused lung cancer,” Masters said. “It’s going to show that our job and what we do has an adverse effect on our health ... If my hearing was perfect now but five years down the road I can’t hear, it may be my job and I can document and show that.”
James said he realizes the process will be an adjustment for some, but it’s about keeping his employees and citizens safe -- especially from disasters that could have been prevented with being healthy.
“I’m doing it all too, he said. “I’m exercising, I’m eating salad instead of the cheeseburger.”