Jan. 25--RIALTO -- It wasn't uncommon five years ago to find blocks of Velveeta cheese and cans of Spam in the cupboard at the local fire stations.
And there were overweight firefighters who steered clear of treadmills.
Fatty foods have since been replaced with lean meats, and fruits and vegetables, while exercise has become the norm.
"It became a culture within the organization," said Fire Chief Mat Fratus.
How did it happen?
The Fire Department teamed up in 2008 with Big Bear Lake-based Fitness Appraisal Inc., a health and fitness program designed for firefighters. Departments in Big Bear Lake, Barstow, Redlands and other Inland Empire cities have also worked with the organization.
Fitness is a way of life for many firefighters due to the high stress and demanding nature of the job. But not all departments require daily exercise.
San Bernardino firefighters used to participate in annual physicals before the city's financial woes, but fitness is currently not required.
San Bernardino County firefighters are required to work out one hour every shift.
Since Rialto started the program in 2008, the department has seen positive results.
Firefighters have decreased risk factors for heart disease and diabetes by 75 percent. Body fat percentage and cholesterol levels also decreased.
And the department saw a 23 percent dip in sick leave use and 39 percent fewer hours lost due to injury in 2012, compared to previous years.
"That equates to a substantial savings to the city," Fratus said.
Firefighters follow the intense CrossFit exercise regimen daily, lifting kettlebells and other weights, doing pull-ups and running.
Firefighter-paramedic Matt Payne said he's lost 20 pounds since the program started. Fire Capt. Eric Gardner lost 24 pounds. And some firefighters have even turned vegan.
The 70 fire employees, including the chief, track their results with annual testing, which includes bloodwork, fitness tests and counseling. The test results each have a point value, and the ideal point total for firefighters is 1,500, said Bob Antonacci, owner of Fitness Appraisal.
Some firefighters far exceed that level, such as firefighter-paramedic Cody Young, who scored more than 1,800 points on Friday.
Firefighter-paramedic Greg Tucker, who was hired last summer, totaled more than 1,900.
"There is a little friendly competition," Payne said.
Fratus said firefighters won't be the only ones to benefit from the health boost.
"We'll have maximum performance in serving the community," he said.
Copyright 2014 - San Bernardino County Sun, Calif.