Michigan Department Says Stay In Shape Or Else

Updated: 06-07-2007 11:38:33 AM

Courtesy of The Muskegon Chronicle

NORTH SHORES, Mich.-- Norton Shores firefighters will soon be running the treadmill and pumping iron if they aren't already, due to a new agreement requiring all members of the force to be physically fit.

"I can tell you that this is a landmark document," Norton Shores Fire Chief David Purchase told the city council Tuesday.

Purchase serves on the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs board and says few fire departments make physical fitness a requirement for holding a job. Grand Haven Township is the closest community to have a similar rule, although there are other area communities that would like to move in that direction, Purchase said.

Purchase said the change was prompted partly by the fact that his firefighters have suffered injuries in the past few years responding to emergencies. For example, one firefighter who was attempting to move a large person out of a bathroom to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation was injured badly enough to require shoulder surgery.

Purchase said there are also national statistics that say 40 to 50 percent of firefighters who die on the job suffer a stroke or heart attack. Numbers like that make it apparent "this is a tough job," Purchase said.

One minute a firefighter may be quietly staffing a station. A short time later, the person's heart may be working close to maximum capacity as the firefighter hauls someone out of a burning building.

Injuries firefighters suffer on the job make it more difficult for the rest of the staff that works overtime to cover those shifts, while the person recovers on medical leave.

For those reasons, the city's union, called the International Association of Firefighters Local 2559, has worked during the past six months with management to develop a health and wellness program. The program was recently approved by the union, despite the fact it isn't yet time for expiration of the current contract.

"I think it adds a great deal of professionalism to our fire service," said Andy Casperson, the local union's president.

He told the city council that when residents call with an emergency, they expect a "healthy, fit, person" to come to the rescue.

The new program will be phased in slowly, but demands all firefighters pass annual physicals and "ability testing" by the time the program is fully implemented on June 30, 2010.

Meanwhile, the city's health and wellness committee will provide educational information about diet, nutrition, weight management and physical and mental fitness.

Under the agreement, all members of the firefighters union may participate in a workout for up to one hour per shift. That exercise will have higher priority than other duties, except for emergency response, maintaining emergency equipment or special training.

Each of the four fire stations in the city has a treadmill or other such equipment for cardiovascular exercise. There is a fully equipped weight and exercise room in the basement of city hall.

As part of the agreement, the city is to seriously consider upgrades recommended by the wellness committee. While the program is phased in, there will be no penalty for failing annual ability tests until June 30, 2010. After that, Purchase said a firefighter could lose his or her job for failing that annual test or the annual physical.

"I'm real proud that they got together and did this," Purchase said of the new agreement forged through cooperation between management and the union.

Republished with permission of The Muskegon Chronicle.