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As an industry, firefighters always have been at the top of the list of dangerous occupations. It took, however, the tragic attack on America to bring the reality of how physically demanding firefighting is to the American public.
In the aftermath of the bombing of the World Trade Center, the world developed a new admiration and respect of the dangerous – and sometimes deadly – occupation of fighting fires. It has been a popular myth that all firefighters answer to a stringent health-and-fitness standard. Though definitely called to do so, the truth is that for the most part we are average people doing an extraordinary, physically demanding task.
Totally by coincidence, on Sept. 12, 2001, Juan Plaza, an exercise physiologist, made an appointment to talk with me about a project he was proposing for his master’s degree in exercise physiology. His proposal was that he be allowed to do a six-month study of 11 of my paid staff members at Benton Fire District No. 4. The program, he told me, would be designed to enhance overall fitness, health and physical ability. It would include baseline data on each participant, including body composition, flexibility, muscle strength and endurance, along with aerobic capacity. In addition, participants would be tested for their vulnerability to stress. Four job-specific tasks would be used to measure ability and establish performance levels for the group as a whole.
On any given day, I would have been intrigued by his proposal. On this particular day, after watching 24 hours of heroism far beyond human endurance by my brother firefighters in New York City, I was totally sold, as was my entire department. We went forward with the program immediately.
Body composition was measured with underwater weighing and basic girth measurements. Flexibility was measured by the sit and reach method along with a test for body rotation. Muscle strength was measured by a maximum bench press along with a maximum leg press. Muscle endurance was measured by a maximum number of push-ups and a maximum number of sit-ups in one minute. Aerobic capacity was measured with a stress test and VO2 measurement.
The job-specific test included advancing a charged 1¾-inch hoseline at 150 psi in full turnouts and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) for 90 feet, climbing a ladder at a 50-degree angle in full turnouts and SCBA, climbing a ladder at a 50-degree angle with 50 pounds of weight and climbing two flights of stairs in a training tower with 50 pounds of weight.
We became so enthusiastic about the program that the department enlisted the aid of registered dietitian Jean Andrews Doss. She taught the firefighters and their spouses the basics of good nutrition and how to enhance their physical performance through healthy eating. Each individual in the program was given chapters to read on basic nutrition and sports nutrition. Along with this, numerous pamphlets and handouts were provided. Topics discussed were the Diabetic Exchange List, food groups, fats, proteins, carbohydrates, supplements, chemicals, cholesterol, triglycerides, behavior modification and lifestyle change. The Food Guide Pyramid was explained, as were the principles of variety, proportionality and moderation in their individual diets.
Part of the nutrition program included throughout the six-month program was a three-day food recall. The food recalls were periodically evaluated and returned to the participants with suggestions from the dietitian. In the beginning, the group’s diet as a whole consisted of fried breads, fried meats and sweet drinks. Many of the diets were more than 50% fat calories rather than the 30% that is recommended. Few members of the group ate fruits or green vegetables, drank milk or consumed any calcium-rich foods. For those participants who were interested, Doss provided individual diet counseling. As the program progressed consistent changes were slow to occur.