Firefighters compete for good health, bragging rights in stair-climb event

ATLANTA - When Gwinnett County firefighters defend the department's title in the popular Atlanta Climb competition at the BentleyForbes-Bank of America Plaza building in downtown Atlanta today, it will be for more than just bragging rights over area departments.

With the majority of line-of-duty firefighter deaths being attributed to poor cardiovascular health, county fire officials say the 55-floor race to the top of Atlanta's most recognizable skyscraper is an opportunity to increase awareness of just how critical physical fitness is to getting the job done.

Gwinnett Fire and Emergency Services finished first last year in its debut at the Atlanta Climb firefighter competition, a portion of the event that attracts several departments throughout the region.

"What we want to do is to cultivate a culture and environment that it's the cool thing to do, it's the right thing to do," Gwinnett fire Capt. Stony Polite said. "And if you have some people that fall through the cracks, that's going to happen. But the majority of us accept the concept and the belief that the heart of doing this job is taking care of yourself."

Steve Brown, 47, is a firefighter at station 19 in Duluth. He finished first overall last year at the Climb Atlanta event and is one of 16 Gwinnett firefighters who will make their way up the 1,023-foot building today. A triathlete, he says maintaining his physical health allows him to keep coming home to his daughters.

"It's about going out, doing your job and going back home and enjoying your life with your family," he said.

Thad Smith, a 44-year-old firefighter at station 16 who placed second overall in last year's Climb Atlanta, said participating in today's grueling challenge sets the example for the younger generation of firefighters entering the department.

"The new guys, after they graduate [from recruit school], some just blow up," he said. "Especially those who go straight to paramedic school. Those are the ones we're really concerned with."

Firefighting is not unlike being an Olympic athlete, according to Polite. From a stationary position, firefighters are expected to perform the functions of the job within 60 seconds, whether it's dragging a victim out of a burning structure or dragging a hose into a residence to knock down a blaze.

The stress starts with the gear: Personnel must wear bunker pants and a coat, protective gloves and the famous helmet to survive inside super-heated environments. Compounded with a self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, firefighters are outfitted with nearly 60 pounds of gear before they even set foot on the ground or ascend a smoky stairwell. It's an unforgiving toll that unfortunately kills without regard, officials say.

Yet for all of the physical requirements candidates must meet to get hired, virtually no department nationwide has ongoing minimum fitness standards or even a program employees can follow to stay in shape. As a result, county firefighters say, bad habits are formed that negate the strength and endurance employees gain during recruit school.

With participation in events like Climb Atlanta, though, Gwinnett fire officials are seeking ways to change the health crisis plaguing the nation's fire service by looking for solutions within the department. Dubbed the "FireFit Living Initiative," the program encourages firefighters to be more physically active while making smarter food choices.

"This deals with not only the physical aspect, but health and nutrition," Gwinnett fire spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge said. "We're trying to teach our firefighters how to make better alternatives when they choose meals they're going to cook at the fire station."

Polite said the department will take a larger role in spreading the word about competitions like today's event and other opportunities to stay fit.

"All are avenues just to get out and be active," he said.