South Carolina Firefighters Focused on Fitness

Columbia firefighters have to pass an exhausting set of physical challenges to get the job. But after they join the force despite their heroic image they arent required to maintain any physical fitness standards.

But once theyre hired, firefighters are not obligated to build strength or endurance, or even watch their diets. Gum-ball and vending machines with snacks, along with workout equipment, can be found in most fire stations.

And with the demands of the job, its easy to fall into an unhealthy diet, some firefighters said.

The busier you are, the more stressed you are, the more hungry you are, said Dean Swygert, a firefighter at Gills Creek station near Forest Drive and I-77.

Firefighters cant limber up while someones house is burning, making the physical demands of the job even greater.

We dont get that chance (to stretch), said firefighter Bill Truesdale, 42. When that tone breaks, were gone.

At the Gills Creek station, Swygert is known for his culinary skills. Though his menu isnt tailored to the calorie-conscious, he said he does try to stay away from cooking some fattening foods. Chicken, for example, is made with boneless, skinless breasts.

I try to cook healthy, Swygert said. I dont fry hardly anything. Everything is baked or broiled.

Eating well is important, firefighters say.

When you do catch a fire ... youve got to have the energy, Swygert said. If you dont, youre not going to make it. Youre going to pass out from overexertion.

As outlined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, firefighters have to undergo an annual physical, which includes blood tests, an electrocardiogram and body composition measurements.

Should the doctor find a problem, a firefighter could be removed from duty.

Vinsant Knott, 45, a firefighter at Gills Creek, had triple-bypass surgery in the late 1990s to clear some blocked blood vessels a problem discovered during his annual physical.

Knott, who didnt show any symptoms before the medical evaluation, returned to duty six months later and has since adjusted his diet. He watches his carbs.

He knows he could have been another U.S. Fire Administration statistic.

The man upstairs was watching over me, Knott said.