If you choose Firefighting, you lose the right to be Unfit!
By: Chief John Kachanuk, Havana Fire Department

Has anyone noticed the growing number of firefighters dying in the line of duty due to heart failure? This isnít just due to stress; itís due to poor fitness. How many of our comrades must fall before we consider this an epidemic?

I keep a close watch on the number and the types of deaths in the U.S. fire service; and I forward them to all the members on my department as they come across the wire. We often discuss the high rate of deaths due to heart attacks, and note the similarities of ages between the deceased and ourselves. The average age of the Havana fire department is mid-30. Every member of my department thought that we were all healthy, albeit some were a few pounds over weight but for the most part healthy.

For myself, I take pride in the fact that I lift weights 5 days a week. I watch what I eat and try to stay active. Iíve done this for years but even more so because I was diagnosed as having hypertension; it caused my blood pressure to rise to 138/118. I was put on medication and was told to stay active. It runs in my family. But, I figured I was the only one in the department to have this problem. I am 37 years old.

As chief, I viewed my department as a ďdo-anythingĒ department, that given any task my firefighters would not have a problem rising to the occasion. At any given call, each member would be fit enough and able to do their jobs and then go home. I thought that heart problems were a problem for other departments, not mine.

In December, my training officer informed me that six of the 19 members of my department failed our annual fitness test and under our current guidelines they could no longer wear a breathing apparatus. All six are what I considered to be my high percentage guys, and not one was over the age of 42. They have the highest turnout rate of all the members. So the core of my department just crashed. I could no longer rely on the fact that these guys can do it all at a fire scene. It is a hard thing to face knowing if the tones went off and they showed up, all they could do is watch.

I addressed the members at our next regular meeting. I told them that things had to change, because our department was no longer of the caliber it should be. It was not because we didnít train or because we did not have the equipment, but because we were on the verge of being another death notification from the United States Fire Administration. Interestingly enough, the State Police have a motto: If you choose law enforcement, you lose the right to be unfit. As firefighters, I feel we should adopt that same motto and tolerate nothing less.

One of the firefighters suggested that we start doing a cardio workout together. Running wasnít an option because several members donít like to run. One firefighter suggested basketball and some others said they would be willing to play once a week.

So, that following Sunday we played our first pickup game. Keep in mind that none of us are Michael Jordanís, and most did not even play in high school. After 10 minutes of half court, 3 on 3 play, we had to stop. Each of us complained of being dizzy and having shortness of breath. After 45 minutes, we stopped for good that night. It felt good to sweat but we had no strength or energy. After the second week we felt a little better and picked up a few more guys. This helped as were able to rotate out without stopping the game. We had fun; some firefighters brought their kids so they could play in the gym, and it became a family-building theme; even some of the wives showed up to run in the hallway of the school while we played.

By week 10, we were now playing an hour and a half, 10 of us without stopping. I had the training officer come over to the gym and take blood pressure readings after we finished playing. As each member walked off the court, he took their blood pressure. Of the 10 members playing, nine were far below the limits that the department had set. And, after 10 weeks, my blood pressure is 130/80. We are now at week 13, all of the members who play on a regular basis have lost several pounds; one changed his diet along with playing and has lost a whole pant size. We have talked about expanding the workouts, but agreed in the end to leave it alone and just play for an hour and a half on Sunday evenings.

Our major problem has now turned into a minor one, almost non-existent. It is quite easy to do. Havana is a small community; there is no indoor track, and no health spas. All we have are the school gyms. It was easy to get into the gym; two of our members are teachers. Permission was granted by the school because it is considered training, so the insurance was released. We are allowed to play anytime we want and the principal will even open the gym.

Again, we play once a week for an hour and half. Whoever is there plays, if it is an odd number we rotate so that everyone gets equal playing time. There are more missed shots then made. It is none competitive, but we do make each other work. It is a great workout and builds team spirit. The guys are now more comfortable with each other and this gives us some great conversation at the station.

Each member has spoken with me in one way or another about how much better they feel and how it has helped change their line of thinking when it comes to the supper table. I think it is great, because my department has returned to the ďdo-anythingĒ department it once was. Now Iím less worried about seeing any of my guyís names as an untimely statistic due to heart failure.

Anyone who would be interested in playing a departmental pick-up game (for the fun of it) please contact me to make arrangements. Likewise anyone interested in how we implemented the program or would like to speak to me, call Chief John Kachanuk, City of Havana Fire Department. 309-543-2153, 8 to 4 Monday through Friday.

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