Fighting fire with fire

Posted: July 30, 2015 - 3:46pm

As surprising as this fact may be, heart attack and stroke cause more than half of all line-of-duty firefighter deaths. To counter this trend, fire departments nationally — including Pantex and Y‑12 fire departments — have adopted occupational fitness programs.

The percentage of firefighter line-of-duty deaths caused by cardiac arrest or stroke topped 50 percent for more than a decade, hitting 63 percent in 2010. Adoption of health and fitness programs aims to prevent these deaths while building healthier, stronger firefighters.

Y-12 Fire Chief Scott Vowell said the Fit for Duty program is designed to enhance firefighters’ health and proficiency and was modeled after the Pantex program. Neither department has ever recorded a line-of-duty death.

“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect them,” Vowell said. “Even though the number of fires is going down nationwide, the high number of cardiac arrests is a hazard we have to address.”

The National Fire Protection Association issues recommendations regarding occupational health and fitness. Vowell said the Y-12 program incorporates the NFPA standards, as does the Pantex program.
Pantex Fire Department Assistant Chief of Operations Shannon Lanier said while the recommendations are obviously important, even more vital reasons are behind the programs.

“We can quote NFPA all day long, but the bottom line is we owe this to the people who depend upon us — those we work with, those we work for and those we hope to spend many years in retirement with,” Lanier said.

Pantex adopted an official fitness program two decades ago after the International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs established the Wellness-Fitness Initiative. Labor and management then agreed to include it in the 2002 bargaining agreement, helping everyone get on board, he said.

“When the line-of-duty deaths attributed to health and fitness issues were about half of the annual mortality numbers, I think everyone agreed that the fire service needed to put as much emphasis on maintaining their personnel as was given to maintaining trucks and stations,” Lanier said.

Under Y-12’s model, firefighters undergo an annual medical exam and a health risk assessment. Within 90 days, they must complete the six-station fit-for-duty course in seven minutes or less. They carry a 40-pound hose up three flights of stairs wearing full gear (45–50 pounds) and then pull a hose attached to a rope up three stories and lower it back down.

Another station entails using a sledge hammer to move a Keiser sled, an 80–100 pound block, to simulate using a forceable entry tool. Next, the firefighter has to pull 100 feet of water-charged hose for 100 feet. The “further you go, the heavier it gets,” Vowell said. Finally, the 100-foot “dummy drag” replicates rescuing a 165-pound victim.

Y-12 Fire Department Capt. John Fife said the program gives the firefighters a good measure of their fitness.

“One of the good things is it gives the guys an idea of where they are physically, their strong areas and their weak areas,” he said. “It shows you where you need to improve.”

When firefighters have difficulty, LiveWise staff members develop rehabilitation programs to help them succeed, Headrick said. The LiveWise program helped one firefighter decrease his time by two minutes. Firefighters are given the time and the equipment to train physically at work, at one of the site’s LIFE fitness centers or on equipment at the fire station, Vowell said.

Fitness programs, such as those at Pantex and Y-12, not only prepare firefighters for their work on the job, but also improve their health and well-being for their lives off the job.