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Firefighters told to get in shape by '08

LAWRENCEVILLE - Firefighters will have to pass an annual fitness exam to stay on the job, Gwinnett County Fire Chief Steve Rolader announced Tuesday.

While the deadline for getting in shape isn't until 2008, Rolader said a committee of 40 firefighters has been working for months to set up the mandatory program within the department.

"I'm tired of going to funerals, and I'm tired of going to the hospital," Rolader said. "We're going to make our people take care of themselves."

Gwinnett County government began a wellness program for employees 11 years ago, Finance Director Lisa Johnsa said in a presentation to the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

Until now, the staffers have had the option of whether they participate.

Rolader said he learned that 25 firefighters who took the voluntary stress test had to stop the test because of respiratory problems.

Because of privacy laws, the department never learned the identity of those people and they have not come forward to say they are too out of shape to safely fight a fire.

"They are afraid it's going to cost them their job," Rolader said.

Recently, he said two employees in their late 30s had to undergo bypass surgery, and the department was jarred by the recent heart attack death of an Atlanta firefighter. Three years ago, Gwinnett had its own tragedy, when Lt. Bobby Patrick died of a heart attack after working to put out a fire.

Studies show that the average life span of a firefighter is 10 to 11 years less than the average person, and heart attacks account for 50 percent of firefighter deaths, the chief said.

Stoney Polite, a firefighter who formerly worked in the county's fire college, said he tried to plant a seed in recruits on the importance of fitness during the training stage.

Now, he heads the committee on fitness.

"We can be as smart as a whip, but this is blue collar job, and when it comes down to it, you have to be physically fit," he said.

Age and stress from the job can harm a firefighter's health, even though the department leaders allow their 700 staffers to go to the gym between emergency responses.

While the staffers will have to prove they are fit each year, Rolader said the committee is working on deadlines for improving health and provisions to get people back in shape.

"We've got to do something," Rolader said.

Rolader himself has worked to get himself back in shape. The 53-year-old chief has lost 25 pounds since January by exercising, dieting and drinking water instead of soda.