Nature of firefighting requires top physical condition

By Mr. Eric Kowal (Picatinny)October 25, 2018

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(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. - Maintaining a physically fit lifestyle not only provides health benefits and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, but also helps boost morale and self-esteem.

But what if not only your job, but also your life, depends on staying active and keeping in shape?

Firefighters need to main peak physical condition to perform at their best at any moment.

Without the ability to call forth the sudden, intense energy needed to fight a fire, a firefighter in poor physical condition could be in grave danger. Also, a firefighter's lack of physical fitness can be viewed as a matter of public safety, as well as individual health. Thus, there are requirements that mandate a "fit for duty" status at all times.

"I think that speaks to the physical exertion that these professionals endure under stressful situations," said Picatinny Arsenal Garrison Commander Lt. Col. Samuel Morgan.

"They are weighted down with protective equipment, carrying the tools of their trade, enduring overwhelming heat, moving quickly, and potentially dragging strangers or each other from Danger," Morgan said.

"These circumstances demand the firefighter's peak performance like we expect from athletes, except human lives and property damage are at stake."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "regular physical activity can help keep your thinking, learning, and judgment skills sharp as you age. It can also reduce your risk of depression and may help you sleep better.

Research has shown that aerobic exercise, or a mix of aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities, performed three to five times a week for 30 to 60 minutes, can provide these mental health benefits. Some scientific evidence has also shown that lower levels of physical activity can also be beneficial.

Picatinny Arsenal Fire Chief Jeremy Rebok has implemented a fitness program that allows his 40-man team to get in the workouts they need, but in a way that also brings camaraderie to the squad. While not required to work out together, many of the firemen have come together to help push each other to the limit.

The fire crew has become so invested to their cause that they turned an old garage at the installation's second firehouse into a gym.

Not only are many of the firefighters using the new equipment and workout space, but several have also become CrossFit certified, and even participated in 26.2 mile rowing marathons, representing the department as a team outside the cannon gates.

The firefighters are on call 365 days a year, always with a minimum of 12 people per shift. In recent years, the average age of the Picatinny Arsenal Fire Department (PAFD) has fallen from 46 to 33.

"We identified an issue, and then built time in to their work schedule to make it easier on the firefighters to get in the workouts that they need in order to stay active and healthy," Rebok said.

The issue was that the hectic work schedule and the everyday rigors of life were taking a toll on the amount of off-duty time the firefighters had to keep in top physical condition.

"Most guys work out together. They are responding to calls together, so it makes sense to know the limits of the guys to the left and right of you."

According to Rebok, 99 percent of line-of-duty deaths in firefighting are related to a cardiac event.

"I take it to heart because one of my good friends was burned very badly in 2010," the chief recalled. "Luckily, another officer was able to pull him out. He spent 37 days in the hospital and was burned over 70 percent of his body. Had the other firefighter not been able to carry him, he would have died."

Rebok said his firefighters are allowed to build 1.5 hours of physical fitness time into their workday. Work cycles for these firefighters are not typical of most jobs. They are on call for 48 hours, and then have 48 hours off.

"I support the fire departments functional fitness program because it trains for the activities performed in the firefighter's daily job and with the same rigor," Morgan said.

"I also support a physically fit fire department because it is investing in our people," the garrison commander added. "A physically fit workforce increases productivity, ensures the longevity that we can keep Picatinny's talented fire fighters, and increases their quality of life."

Since the firefighters live in the firehouse several days a week, they have incorporated healthier eating and meal planning into their routine as well.

Rebok said that at first, a few firefighters were hesitant to take part in the coordinated fitness program, but things have since changed. "Our department now has a love for physical fitness," the fire chief said.

Personnel are not required to report weight loss numbers to Rebok. However, he said that since June, more than 60 pounds have been shed by a small group that gave him results.

The fire crew are also required to pass medical assessments annually, which include blood tests and electrocardiograms.

Firefighters who don't pass the "medicals" or do not meet physical fitness requirements are placed on light duty status until they can meet requirements.

The PAFD invites the Picatinny community to come work out with them and help build a healthier Team Picatinny.

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