Columbia chief, others say focus on health would mean stronger department
By J.R. GONZALES
Columbia firefighters have to pass an exhausting set of physical challenges to get the job.
But after they join the force — despite their heroic image — they aren’t required to maintain any physical fitness standards.
The bottom line is they’re mortals, just like those in the community they work for. And not all of them are as fit as they need to be.
“We’ve got folks who are out of shape,” Columbia Fire Chief Bradley Anderson says simply.
Anderson wants a healthier department, an issue that has gained momentum after the death of veteran Columbia firefighter Timmy Young. The 41-year-old suffered a heart attack while responding to an emergency call Jan. 7. He died Jan. 20.
Young’s death is not atypical.
It’s generally not the fire that kills firefighters. Heart attacks are usually the leading medical cause of firefighter deaths.
In 2003, there were 111 firefighter deaths in the United States, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Of those, 50 were caused by heart attacks.
By comparison, eight died from burns, and six died from asphyxiation, according to agency figures.
Anderson, a frequent exerciser who has been chief since December, wants to start a health and fitness committee to promote a healthier department, a plan he had formulated before Young’s death.
The idea of having to pass annual fitness and agility requirements doesn’t bother most Columbia firefighters.
“It doesn’t matter how strong you are, how muscled you are; if you don’t have the endurance in this job, you’re through,” fire Capt. Edison Naranjo said. “And in this job, we depend on each other. So if I pass out and (a fellow firefighter) doesn’t have the endurance to take me out, then we’re in trouble.”
Required agility tests could benefit firefighters, though crews should have time to train for them, said Fred Brandt, president of the Columbia Firefighters Association, a subsidiary of the International Association of Firefighters.
“I think that would be good,” Brandt said.
Brandt would like the committee to instill a basic awareness about health and fitness. Education also should be a component.
On Thursday, Naranjo and his fellow firefighters at the Shandon fire station on Devine Street talked about their health and the demands of the job.
Certain health factors are more important than others, they said.
“I don’t think we need to worry too much about the weight issue as long as that person has the endurance,” said John Brown II, 41.
But agility tests alone won’t cut it, Brown said. Recruits take the entrance test wearing a 45-pound vest to simulate the weight of the firefighting gear. But battling a fire is different — and more grueling, he said.
“When you get in that gear and get on that mask, it’s different from running that test. All it does is dehydrate you.
“It takes every bit of strength in your body to run that seven-minute test. But it doesn’t do anything (compared with) when you get out here on the firetruck.”
Putting more emphasis on basic exercises like push-ups, sit-ups and walking wouldn’t bother him, he said.
Anderson also is considering setting daily workout routines.
“For example, we might want to set an hour aside in the morning and designate it ‘fitness hour’ or something like that,” Anderson said. “Those are all just possibilities.”
Other firefighters suggested having a nutritionist meet with firefighters individually to plan diets and workout routines.
As they become acclimated to a fitness-friendly department, firefighters’ eating habits at the firehouse might improve, Brandt said.
He is working with the International Association of Firefighters to put together a weeklong wellness seminar for firefighters from across the state.
Health and fitness are integral parts of becoming a Columbia firefighter.
In addition to the agility test, recruits have to attend regular workout sessions at the city gym.
But once they’re hired, firefighters are not obligated to build strength or endurance, or even watch their diets. Gum-ball and vending machines with snacks, along with workout equipment, can be found in most fire stations.
And with the demands of the job, it’s easy to fall into an unhealthy diet, some firefighters said.
“The busier you are, the more stressed you are, the more hungry you are,” said Dean Swygert, a firefighter at Gills Creek station near Forest Drive and I-77.
Firefighters can’t limber up while someone’s house is burning, making the physical demands of the job even greater.
“We don’t get that chance (to stretch),” said firefighter Bill Truesdale, 42. “When that tone breaks, we’re gone.”
At the Gills Creek station, Swygert is known for his culinary skills. Though his menu isn’t tailored to the calorie-conscious, he said he does try to stay away from cooking some fattening foods. Chicken, for example, is made with boneless, skinless breasts.
“I try to cook healthy,” Swygert said. “I don’t fry hardly anything. Everything is baked or broiled.”
Eating well is important, firefighters say.
“When you do catch a fire ... you’ve got to have the energy,” Swygert said. “If you don’t, you’re not going to make it. You’re going to pass out from overexertion.”
As outlined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, firefighters have to undergo an annual physical, which includes blood tests, an electrocardiogram and body composition measurements.
Should the doctor find a problem, a firefighter could be removed from duty.
Vinsant Knott, 45, a firefighter at Gills Creek, had triple-bypass surgery in the late 1990s to clear some blocked blood vessels — a problem discovered during his annual physical.
Knott, who didn’t show any symptoms before the medical evaluation, returned to duty six months later and has since adjusted his diet. He watches his carbs.
He knows he could have been another U.S. Fire Administration statistic.
“The man upstairs was watching over me,” Knott said.
Reach Gonzales at (803) 771-8405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.