fighter fitness

Rigorous physical training is key in a dangerous line of work
by: Vern Uyetake, Greg Barnum works on a muscle group that might commonly be used with to remove  debris from a roof with a pike pole or chainsaw.

Before they fight fires, firefighters have to be fit.

For the Lake Oswego Fire Department, that is where Peggy Halley comes in.

Besides being battalion chief of the Westlake Station, Halley is the head training officer for the entire department, in charge of keeping 42 firefighters in excellent physical shape - at all times.

'Firefighters have such high demands,' said Halley, who has been the lone woman in the Lake Oswego Fire Department for the past 25 years. 'They have 65 pounds of gear, and that is even before they pick up a fire hose, ladder or an axe.

'It's possible they may have to rescue people, or maybe their partner, so they have to have lots of resources.'

In the olden days it was widely believed that firemen sat around the firehouse all day playing checkers. However, a high level of physical fitness has been a requirement for firefighters for many years. This was brought home like never before in the 9-11 crisis.

Halley said, 'The demands of the job are so great. That is why firefighters retire at the age of 50.'

The ultimate tragedy for a fire department is to lose a firefighter in the line of duty, and this is something that happens about 100 times a year in the USA.

'Forty-seven of these deaths are due to heart attacks,' Halley said. 'The evidence is that the majority of these deaths are due to dehydration. We place a lot of emphasis on eating well and staying hydrated. Instead of Coke or coffee, we want our firefighters to drink water or energy drinks.'

Westlake Station's physical training area is not elaborate. Equipment, including weights and stationary bikes and treadmills, is pushed rather closely together into a corner of a large meeting room.

'There's a delicate balance,' Halley said, 'between firemen fitness and being responsible for the taxpayer's dollars.'

Halley has a lot of help, however, because the firefighters under her supervision are highly motivated to be physically fit - because they have to be ready for anything.

'We have to go from zero to a hundred in a minute,' said firefighter Greg Barnum. 'Unlike athletes, we don't have the luxury of a warm-up. At 3 a.m. we might get a call to go pull on a heavy hose line.'

There can be worse things than putting out a fire.

'Where we get hurt is in lifting a 400-pound guy out of a car,' Barnum said. 'Those things are career enders.'

Although the training is tough, it is certainly not grueling.

'It's definitely fun,' said firefighter Dick Griffin. 'There's also a competitive aspect to it. Physical training is a real nice bonus to this job. There's not many jobs where it's expected of you.'

Barnum, who competes in the Portland Marathon, said, 'We work, play and train together and help each other out.'

It helps that the training officer is so highly fit herself. Sports and working out have always been part of Halley's lifestyle, as it has also been for her husband Dave, a firefighter with Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue.

'I try to make it interesting and different,' Halley said. 'But there are minimum requirements we have to meet. There is a mandatory physical that a firefighter has to pass every year.'

However, Halley has been a battalion chief for the past eight years. That requires her to direct the firefighters' actions and not do the heavy truck work. But even that requires a high level of physical fitness.

'That causes a lot of stress,' Halley said. 'And you have to be fit to deal with stress, too. Physical fitness is huge in any aspect of life.'

Even with so many mandates facing fire departments from state governments and OSHA, things are going well in Lake Oswego.

'We have a great department,' Halley said. 'We've got a lot of guys willing to step up and teach a class. We've gotten federal grants to buy equipment and get guest speakers.'

The phrase 'fit as a firefighter' may just catch on in Lake Oswego. Last September, Halley started a program called Fire Fit Kids. It attracted 22 children between the ages of 7 and 17, which was an excellent number for the first time.

'We had a really good response,' Halley said. 'Everyone had a good time. Our firefighters love kids.'