Fitness goal of fire, police programs

Departments try incentives, tests to ensure health

Cops and doughnuts are an old punch line.

But there's nothing funny about overweight deputies who can't chase bad guys, officials say, or firefighters who can't climb ladders.

Richmond County's neighboring public safety departments avoid that scenario with annual physical fitness tests and through financial incentives to stay in shape.

Deputies at the Columbia County Sheriff's Office, for example, pay a lower insurance premium based on their level of health.

North Augusta public safety officers are given an annual physical to test their strength, agility and general wellness.

Neither the Richmond County Sheriff's Office nor the fire department have any annual checkups. The sheriff's office is doing away with its initial physical fitness test at hiring, Col. Gary Powell said.

Both Powell and Fire Chief Howard Willis point to the discounted gym memberships offered to county employees as ways to stay in shape. Powell said a "majority" of deputies do go to the YMCA to take advantage of that offering.

"We remind them to stay in shape and present a professional image of the department," Powell said.

Willis added that there are weights and stationary bicycles at fire stations.

He acknowledged the importance of firefighters being in good health and shape because they work in what can be an "extreme atmosphere." Firefighters should be able to keep themselves, and others, safe during a rescue, the fire chief said.

If they "can't perform they normally step down or find something else to do," Willis said.

Willis didn't have a response when asked what happens when a firefighter realizes he can't do his job in the middle of an emergency response.

Tracing the source

TV might show cops in constant foot chases, but in reality it's tough staying in shape as a first responder.

Deputies spend a lot of their 12-hour shifts behind the wheel, driving from one call to the next or waiting for something to happen. Their best meal of the day could be a drive-through burger hastily scarfed down on the way to a call for service.

Firefighters have chores to do around the station in between calls, but there's still a lot of down time spent lounging in front of the TV.

Supervisors in some jurisdictions don't take excuses for overweight employees.

Columbia County deputies have annual physicals, but supervisors also check their subordinates' professional appearance once a month. That checklist covers uniform basics such as shiny boots and trimmed hair, and whether a deputy has a gut hanging over his utility belt.

Capt. Steve Morris said Columbia County takes professional appearance very seriously because every deputy represents the agency -- and it's not just citizens taking notice.

"Criminals often size up an officer before deciding whether to challenge him," Morris said. "The more fit you are, the less likely a criminal will test you."

Deputies are more likely to win a physical struggle if they are in shape, and it cuts down on recovery time if they are injured. A deputy should also be in good condition in case he needs to help out a fellow deputy under attack, Morris said.

Officers and firefighters in North Augusta are cross-trained in their jobs, so it's especially important for them to be prepared for any eventuality, Lt. Tim Pearson said.

An annual physical tests their general wellbeing and strength, but doesn't include a body mass index. Pearson said some officers are just big in stature; what matters more is that they're able to "satisfactorily perform their duties."

Pearson said an officer would probably go on probation if he failed the physical, but he wasn't sure what the consequences would be because that's never happened.

"We pride ourselves on officers being able to meet those standards," he said.

Keeping it in check

The city of Aiken has been promoting a health and wellness program for the past 20 years. For public safety, it's split into two categories. Officers can either provide a note from their doctor annually proving they're in good health, or take a physical fitness test that includes sit-ups, a mile run and weightlifting.

Capt. Wendell Hall said good health is essential. Firefighters have been known to have heart attacks at strenuous fires, he said, and officers have to be prepared to sprint from an air-conditioned car at a moment's notice.

"Bad guys don't allow us to stretch first," Hall joked.

The Aiken County Sheriff's Office has a physical fitness test before hiring, but nothing afterward to monitor the weight of deputies, Capt. Troy Elwell said.

A voluntary physical fitness program was attempted at one time, but "we didn't get much of a response out of it," Elwell said.

Added incentives

Some departments use financial incentives, both positive and negative, to reinforce their efforts to keep deputies in shape.

Columbia County divides its deputies into three health insurance tiers following an annual physical exam. In Tier 1, a deputy pays 10 percent of costs, the insurance company 90 percent. The other tiers and corresponding percentages are similar: 80/20 and 70/30.

"It can cost an employee a significant amount of money," Morris said.

It's not just insurance. If sworn deputies are not adhering to appearance standards, they're sent to a review board and can ultimately lose their jobs.

Richmond County employees are given a higher discount on their gym membership the more often they visit the facility.

Ultimately it's the taxpayer who benefits from healthy employees.

Al Cothran, the revenue administrator for the city of Aiken, said deputies in good shape take fewer sick days and make fewer worker compensation claims, which lowers insurance costs.

That's not to mention the benefit of having a firefighter who is able to carry your children out of a burning building.

"You want someone fit and able to respond when the call comes," Cothran said.