Virginia FD launches fitness initiative as focus on health grows in public safety careers

By Sarah J. Ketchum – The Daily Press


The Hampton, Virginia Division of Fire & Rescue recently launched an accredited Wellness-Fitness Initiative, in line with a growing focus on the health of people working in public safety careers.

Physical strength and cardiovascular fitness affect first responders’ ability to perform at an emergency scene, and a lack can lead to injury or death. But they also impact their quality of life outside of work, and their retirement years, fire officials told the Daily Press.

“We do all of this for the citizens … (but) the other half of this program is so that you can live your life outside of work,” Hampton medic-firefighter Eddie Van Es Jr. said. “I want to make sure you can do (your job) and go home and play with your kids.”

Van Es is a peer fitness trainer and co-coordinator of the program, which launched its final pieces in March.

The initiative is a collaboration between the International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and it is accredited by the American Council on Exercise, according to department spokesman Battalion Chief Anthony Chittum.

The division received a $199,000 grant from the two associations, which paid to equip all the division’s fire stations and training center with workout equipment last year. It also covered the cost for 31 members to attend a week long peer fitness trainer program, according to Chittum.

The program comes as fire departments across the nation are working to change beliefs and behaviors that have become fixtures of the profession’s culture. Traditionally, little attention was given to the physical or mental health of people working in public safety careers, Newport News Fire Department Safety Officer Lt. Sidney Lucas said.

Newport News fire officials also are working to implement the Wellness-Fitness Initiative, which is expected to launch in July, Lucas said. The department currently has about a dozen peer trainers and workout equipment was purchased for each station about two years ago, he said. Fire officials are aiming for about 25 total peer trainers, as the department’s budget allows.

Culture of wellness

A firefighter’s physical ability to perform the job always has been a priority. Both cities require physical tests in the hiring process, as well as extensive annual exams. The physical examinations measure lung capacity and require blood work, a 12-lead electrocardiogram, and a chest X-ray, among other tests, the officials said. The tests have uncovered cardiovascular issues, cancer and other health problems.

But the tests don’t guarantee cardiovascular health, which is best achieved through a regular workout routine, the officials said. It also doesn’t address the toll the job has on firefighters’ health over time. It is not uncommon for a firefighter to die just a few of years after he or she retires, they said.

“We’ve been through funerals of guys who have died at a young age,” Van Es said.

National studies have found that 50 to 75 percent of firefighter line-of-duty deaths were the result of cardiovascular problems, according to Lucas.

The heart rate of a firefighter who is alerted to an emergency while he or she is sleeping jumps from a resting rate of about 60 to 80 beats per minute to 220 to 230 beats per minute. It can take up to four hours after the incident to return to its resting rate, he said. Multiple alarms per night over the course of 20 or 30 years can have a significant toll on cardiovascular health.

That’s paired with other job-related stress. Another focus for both departments, separate from the fitness initiative, is mental health. Studies show a significant risk for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, because of the job’s repeated exposures to traumatic events. Trauma-related stress can affect a person’s physical health and lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as substance abuse, the officials said.

Stress-related eating also is common in the firehouse, Van Es said. In addition to addressing mental health concerns, he said he hopes firefighters will use exercise as a substitute for shoving down their feelings with food.

“It’s a stress-eating job,” he said. “Let’s have an outlet where we go work out.”

Peer fitness

Out at Hampton Fire Station No. 10 on Marcella Road on a recent Wednesday, firefighters started their day with a 20-minute workout. Van Es led his peers through sets of deadlifts and exercises using a weighted ball. Peer trainers design workouts that are not so intense firefighters can’t perform their duties if they need to stop to respond to a call.

“It’s just something to get your body going and ready to roll,” Van Es said.

The exercises provide a fast-paced cardiovascular workout and focus on five movements: lifting, pushing, pulling, lunging and squatting. The movements work the appropriate muscle groups to prevent the most likely injuries on the job, he said.

Van Es provides group instruction, but he also is available for one-on-one help. Firefighters work out independently throughout their shifts, as the call volume allows.

Medic-firefighter Raymond Murphy said he started strength training after the station acquired the equipment last year. He said easy access to the equipment is an incentive to work out. The regular workouts have given him more endurance to handle the station’s high call volume.

In a phone interview with the Daily Press later that day, he said he had just returned from two back-to-back fire calls, and he felt pretty good.

“I feel a major improvement,” he said before ending the interview to run to another call. “If I did that a year ago … I would have been spent.”

Candidate Physical Abilities Test

Another component of the Wellness-Fitness Initiative is the associations’ Candidate Physical Abilities Test, or CPAT. Departments that participate in the initiative are required to replace current physical tests used in the hiring process with the standardized test.

The CPAT is an advantage for firefighting candidates because those who pass it might not have to take it for other departments, the officials said. A candidate who passes the test in Hampton, for example, will receive a CPAT card. That card could be accepted by a participating department in another state.

Participating departments are required to use specialized equipment for the test and offer practice sessions for individuals interested in taking it. Peer trainers will offer up to eight weeks of training to build candidates’ strength and allow them to practice portions of the test.

“We will train them to help them pass that test,” Van Es said.

The Hampton and Newport News departments won’t be able to administer the test for the current joint hiring process, which opens July 21, Van Es said. Officials plan to have the test ready for next year, he said.

Ketchum can be reached by phone at 757-247-7478.

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