Montana Firefighters Participating In New Fitness Program

Besides saving lives throughout the community last year, Kalispell firefighters took steps to save their own lives. They saved taxpayers some money, too. The firefighters recently completed the first 12 months of an 18-month fitness and wellness program coordinated by The Summit's community health office.

In addition to helping them slim down and buff up, the program contributed to a remarkable reduction in lost-time injuries, according to Kalispell Fire Chief Randy Brodehl.

"Most of our injuries are strains and sprains, which can be reduced through fitness training," Brodehl said. "In the year preceding this program, we averaged one person off duty per shift with an injury leave. Over the last 12 months, we had one firefighter off for a total of two shifts."

The financial savings attributable to this decline haven't been calculated, but Brodehl estimated that the overtime and other costs associated with an injury leave add up to about $400 per shift.

More importantly, the focus on fitness can save firefighters' lives.

"Cardiovascular events are the number one killer of firefighters," said Tim Soule, a Kalispell firefighter who helped secure the federal grant that paid for 90 percent of the fitness program.

The heavy clothing and breathing equipment that firefighters wear weigh about 50 pounds, Soule said. The tools they carry can weigh another 15 to 30 pounds. Add in flights of stairs and the stress of fighting a fire or responding to an ambulance call and the need for fitness becomes apparent.

The total cost of the fitness and wellness program was about $22,000, Brodehl said.

What the department got for that, he said, was $12,000 in new fitness equipment at the fire station (the police and fire unions chipped in another $4,000), as well as blood and heart screenings and body-fat measurements from The Summit, nutritional and fitness counseling and quarterly evaluations.

"A lot of our guys lost 20 to 40 pounds," Brodehl said.

The biggest benefit, though, "was that it helped change the culture of the department," Soule said. "Now, people here work out more consistently, they eat healthier and they pay more attention to their blood pressure and other risk factors."

The program has been such a success that Kalispell officials are looking for ways to expand it to all city employees. It's unclear whether they can find the money to pay for it