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Fitness saves lives in the line of fire

Sunday, December 15, 2002

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The workday for Mt. Lebanon's 17 paid firefighters begins with a one-hour exercise regimen on treadmills and with weights.

Mt. Lebanon firefighter Steve Sulentic works out in the weight room in the fire station. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

It's not optional. For firefighters in Mt. Lebanon, exercise is a mandatory part of their work.

"No one has had a heart attack while on duty [in Mt. Lebanon], but that is not to say that it couldn't happen," said Fire Chief Stephen Darcangelo, a self-described "disciple on fitness" for firefighters.

For years, heart attacks have been the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths for members of the nation's 30,000 paid and volunteer fire departments, according to statistics compiled by the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass. In 2001, 40 of the 99 firefighter fatalities across the nation (excluding 340 firefighters who died in Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks) were blamed on heart attacks.

"Stress kills," Darcangelo said. And firefighting is a high-stress job where "you go from idle to full tilt in a matter of seconds."

"You put a person in a self-contained breathing apparatus, in a high heat environment and no visibility, and you ask [him] to operate at maximum exertion. It is tremendously taxing on the human system," he said.

Since August, three local firefighters have died in the line of duty.

On Dec. 7, Heidelberg Fire Chief Henry Wissel suffered a heart attack moments after he responded to a fire that destroyed an automotive garage and a house. Wissel, 55, died later at St. Clair Hospital. The coroner's office said the cause was cardiovascular disease.

On Sept. 3, Joseph Craft, 33, died after returning from a call, three months after he joined the Penn Hills Universal Volunteer Fire Department 6. The coroner's office found that he had a congenital heart defect.

On Aug. 17, William H. Goodrich Jr., 56, the assistant chief of the North Hampton Volunteer Fire Department, collapsed at the scene of an attic fire on Sylvan Drive, a block from his home, and died a short time later. As in Wissel's case, the cause of death was cardiovascular disease.

Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann said there were no state laws requiring that a firefighter, whether paid or volunteer, meet any fitness standards.

"That is left up to the individual fire chief or leadership within a fire department," he said.

"Obviously, we are not doing real well when the No. 1 cause of firefighter fatalities nationally continues to be heart attacks, year after year," said Mann, himself a volunteer firefighter in Mifflin County in Central Pennsylvania.

The National Fire Protection Association developed a set of health-related fitness standards for firefighters in 2000 that includes a pre-fitness medical evaluation, exercise and nutritional programs.

"They are voluntary standards," said Stephen Foley, the association's senior fire service safety specialist. The association sells detailed information about the standards to fire departments that want to use it.

To keep down the cost of integrating a fitness program into a fire department, the association recommended that fire companies form relationships with colleges, schools or YMCAs to provide fitness equipment for firefighters.

Last week, Shaler's six volunteer fire departments negotiated a deal that will enable them to work out at Shaler Intermediate School's gym. The school district agreed to waive its $15 monthly fee for the firefighters, said Mike Hepner, chief of the Undercliff Volunteer Fire Department.

"It has weights, a gym, a basketball court. It will work out really well for us," Hepner said.

In Swissvale, Fire Chief Ken Johnston plans to use part of an $84,000 Federal Fire Act grant to develop a fitness program for its paid and volunteer firefighters. Police also could use the program.

"Our biggest problem is finding space. Our space is limited in the borough building," he said.

When Johnston heard about the Heidelberg chief's death last weekend, "It really hit home for me," he said.

"I told my wife that could have been me," said Johnson, 47, who suffered a heart attack 2 1/2 years ago and didn't know it.

"I had my heart attack and waited a month before going to the doctor's. I fought fires with angina," Johnston said. "The day I was diagnosed, I was lying on the table [at the doctor's office] and was paged four times for a structure fire."

With heavy time demands for mandatory training and fund raising, it's hard for volunteer fire departments to make further rules for their members.

"We have talked about it. In fact, we have some physical fitness equipment in our station, but it is not used much," said Ira Helfer, president of the Unity Volunteer Fire Department in Plum, a 30-member volunteer department that has been trying to raise money to buy a new ladder truck.

Pittsburgh Fire Chief Peter J. Micheli Jr. said the city's paid firefighters had brought exercise equipment into the fire stations, but added that any formal fitness program would have to be negotiated with the firefighters' union.

"Most of our fire stations have some kind of weight rooms. Some are very elaborate. The firefighters pay for it themselves," Micheli said. He said that last year, Pittsburgh firefighters had no heart attacks at fire scenes or in the fire stations.

Firefighter Joe Thuransky lifts weights at Mt. Lebanon's fire station. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

In Mt. Lebanon, Darcangelo said, exercise and nutrition have been part of the regimen for the 17 paid firefighters and 37 volunteers for almost a decade. For years, the municipality has required physicals for its firefighters. The municipality foots the bill for the full-time firefighters; the volunteers' physical exams are paid through the Firemen's Relief Association, Darcangelo said.

The relief fund, administered by the state, collects a 2 percent surcharge from insurance premiums of "foreign" insurance companies, and distributes the money to volunteer fire companies. Many fire companies use the money for safety, training and related items.

When Mt. Lebanon's $8.8 million fire and police station is completed next summer, it will include a 1,000-square-foot fitness room. Darcengelo said about 20 pieces of equipment would be purchased with a portion of a $47,500 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that the department received in 2001 for health and fitness.

In Williamsport, Lycoming County, physical fitness is built into the union contract even though Williamsport Fire Chief Jon Kemp said the department didn't have much exercise equipment.

"It doesn't take a lot of money," Kemp said, adding that his department got a treadmill from a hospital and bought a few more pieces of equipment with a grant.

He said Williamsport's 38 paid firefighters were required to spend two hours each day working out -- running, walking or using the equipment.

They get an annual physical, paid for by the city, and their jobs depend on being in shape. As part of their union contract, Kemp said, the firefighters are required to pass an annual fitness test that requires them to perform a round of rigorous physical feats dressed in full gear.

"If they can't pass the test, their job is in jeopardy," said Kemp, adding that the program had given the firefighters a sense of pride and accomplishment, even though other fire departments "look at us like we are from Mars."

Jan Ackerman can be reached at jackerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.

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