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Flashpoint: March 2010

On Boxing Day I stepped onto my bathroom scale and saw a number that I never, in my life, expected I would see. For some reason, even after all the hints my body has given me over the last 20 years, this was the one that hit me like a ton of bricks. OK, not a ton exactly, but an eighth of a ton, which is too much on a five foot eight frame.

March 15, 2010
By Peter Sells

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On Boxing Day I stepped onto my bathroom scale and saw a number that I never, in my life, expected I would see. For some reason, even after all the hints my body has given me over the last 20 years, this was the one that hit me like a ton of bricks. OK, not a ton exactly, but an eighth of a ton, which is too much on a five foot eight frame. I can hear myself breathing all the time. I snore like a bear, to the extent that I wake myself up sometimes. It is an absolute wonder that at the age of 50 I have not become diabetic after decades of carrying this weight.  I’ve tried to turn myself around a few times before. In 1995 I lost 47 pounds in six months, then turned around and gained it all back. Plus 10. Then another 10.  This is now a life-threatening situation and I have some serious decisions to make if I want to be around to know my grandchildren.

Enough about me; how about some good examples of fitness? Since last summer I have been involved with introducing the FireFit competition to the firefighters of the United Arab Emirates. As a result, I have met or reconnected with a group of Canadian firefighters for whom physical excellence is a way of life. Any excuses I could dream up based on my age would be a complete joke. Guys like Cyril Fraser from Halifax, Charles McGregor from Toronto or Craig Harnum from the Marine Institute in Newfoundland are out there training hard year round and competing just as hard within their over-50, over-45 and over-40 age groups. My Dubai roommate, Randy Kalan, is one year younger than me. For two weeks I watched him train a group of firefighters in their 20s and 30s until, most days, he was the last man standing. So, there go any excuses based on age. These guys are lean, mean firefighting machines.

Next example; the IAFF Wellness-Fitness Initiative (WFI). The Calgary Fire Department was the first Canadian fire service to implement this important program. I will mention it briefly here, and direct you to an August 2009 article in Fire Fighting In Canada (www.firefightingincanada.com/content/view/4399/213 /). Programs like the WFI don’t just happen because a few people think that wellness/fitness for firefighters is a good idea. This took concerted effort and determined leadership. Our IAFF representatives sometimes have a tough job to do – in this case to advocate a program that monitors the fitness and healthy lifestyles of firefighters and, simultaneously, to protect the legitimate privacy concerns and human rights of those same firefighters.

One last good example for you; the creation of a fitness/wellness culture at Brampton Fire and Emergency Services in Ontario. From the Brampton website: Brampton Fire and Emergency Services have a fitness program with documented results. The vast majority of our people continue to exceed a minimum fitness standard that is the highest of any department. Fitness is now a very important value in our department culture and is considered to be an integral part of a well-balanced life.

The fitness standard referred to is the entry standard for new members. Such standards have been exhaustively defended as bona fide job requirements of firefighters. Not mentioned is how Brampton Fire took that concept one step further and is encouraging lifelong fitness in its members. Brampton has taken the position that fitness is also a bona fide job requirement of company officers and chief officers. All of the literature on firefighter fitness and age backs this up.  If it makes sense that a 25-year-old body is subjected to an adrenalin rush when the bell goes off, doesn’t it also make sense 25 years later? Company officers will be in the thick of the battle with their teams, within the same compressed time frame that places such huge demands on the heart and lungs. Chief officers, while perhaps not in the middle of the fight, are also required to act quickly and come to a high state of alertness and action without warning. So, if you want to be a company officer or chief officer in Brampton, you are required to demonstrate your physical fitness for the position. If you don’t aspire to those levels, then go ahead and follow my bad example.

For the last 14 years of my career I was in an administrative position as a training manager. It was very sedentary work; most of the day was spent at my desk or in meetings. However, each of my workplaces was equipped with exercise equipment, that I rarely used. If I had ever made a career decision to transfer back into firefighting operations I would have been kidding myself. So, now I am two months into my lifestyle changes. I have lost 15 pounds and I am starting to feel better about myself.

What about you?


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch.


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