Taking Firefighter Fitness to the Next Level

Being physically fit is important for every member of a fire department. At the Lake Forest, IL, Fire Department, fitness and the overall health of its firefighters has become a top priority.

The department put a fitness plan into action in 2005. In addition to forming a fitness committee, it established a mandatory wellness/fitness program. The department's lead fitness coordinator, Firefighter/Paramedic Bob Henderson, said, "It is my hope that with our wellness/fitness program we are doing all we can to prepare our members for the mental and physical stresses of the job, not only to help prevent a line-of-duty death, but to also help our members in preparing for the long, healthy and active retirement they've earned."

The good news was that many more people began working out. The bad news was that the equipment was inadequate and the fitness area was too small and lacked proper access to the apparatus floor. As fire departments all over the country are asked to do more with less, funding for these improvements became the main issue. Where would the money come from?

In 2006, with the help of the fitness committee, Battalion Chief Scott Robertson applied for and received a federal grant for $60,000. Half of the money was used for department physicals. The other half went for fitness equipment.

"I believe that utilizing the grant process to benefit the general health and overall fitness of our membership is the best utilization of funds one can justify," Robertson said. "We are investing in the department's future through the generosity of others."

Once we received the grant, acquiring extra equipment was easy. The bigger task was solving our space problem. The former fitness area had several drawbacks. It measured only 800 square feet and was in a bad location. Before long, Henderson came to the rescue. As the department's lead fitness coordinator, he put together a proposal to acquire the perfect room: 2,000 square feet and close to the apparatus floor. There was only one hitch, however. The room was affectionately known by members as the "unassigned storage" room. And just as the name portrays, it was full of items that had been collecting for 75 years. Essentially, it was a 2,000-square-foot garbage can.

"The transformation was really remarkable," Firefighter Dave Tisinai said. "Before, it was a dark storage area full of junk items, and now it is a workout room with as much variety of equipment as most membership gyms."

In May 2007, our newly named Chief Jeff Howell, who is a proponent of fitness, worked with other city departments to obtain the necessary approvals to transform this monstrosity into a new fitness area.

"Along with fire and EMS training being mandated, I feel physical fitness needed to be an equal partner for the wellbeing of our staff," Howell said.

The final hurdle in this project was funding the remodeling. The fitness committee had only one place to turn: the department's foreign fire insurance fund, also known as the "2% committee." Believing that this new room could be used for the betterment of the department, the fitness committee went to the 2% committee, which is composed of five members who meet once each quarter, and asked for $40,000. The request was granted.

"This vision would not have become reality if it wasn't through a federal grant and partnerships between police/fire and the foreign fire insurance board," Howell said. "I am grateful that we were able to come together and create something that will benefit so many."

In an effort to get this job done right, the fitness committee contacted Dan Martin, who is in charge of all the public buildings in the City of Lake Forest. Martin had his crews handle all of the electrical, plumbing, and heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) work and only charged the fire department for materials.

"It was great to get to know the building maintenance guys as they were working on the fitness room," Firefighter Eric Podowski said. "We were able to see first hand what they do and they were able to see what our job consists of."

This project not only bonded the firefighters closer together, but bonded the firefighters to the building maintenance staff. At the end of the project, the fire department bought and served the building maintenance crews lunch at the fire station.

The hard work resulted in a brand-new, 2,000-square-foot fitness room near the bay floor with brand-new exercise equipment. This project not only bonded the fire department members together, but also strengthened our relationships with other city departments. Overall, bringing fitness to the next level has been a win-win for everyone involved.

BOB MARTINELLI is a lieutenant/paramedic with the Lake Forest, IL, Fire Department, where he has served since 1994. He is certified as a Fire Officer I and II and Fire Investigator, and is the department's medical officer. Martinelli has supervised the department's fitness program for six years and has completed three Ironman Triathlons.