$800K in Homeland Security Funds Goes to County Gym Equipment

They are required to carry 80 pounds of gear into burning buildings.

They must break down doors, haul hoses and climb ladders.

And soon, thanks to a new $792,407 grant from the federal government, county firefighters also will have to work out.

"I expect this to really spark fitness in the department," said Division Chief Frank Stamm, supervisor of the county's Health and Safety division.

The new Department of Homeland Security grant, announced Monday, covers about 80 percent of a new $990,000 health and wellness program designed to keep county firefighters alive, safe and working.

The money will pay for medical exams on all 1,200-some career and volunteer firefighters, individual fitness assessments, tailored exercise programs and new exercise equipment at some of the fire stations. Chief Stamm said the money also will pay for a cer-tified kinesiologist, an exercise expert specializing in the movement of the human body, to oversee the program and 16 peer fitness counselors to keep the firefighters motivated.

Department officials still are banging out the particulars of the program - which should be up and running within the year - but union officials welcome some mandatory physical training and checkups.

"It's one of the best things to happen to the department in quite a few years," said Bob Stevens, president of the fire union. "We are absolutely 100 percent behind it."

Dave Lewis, president of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighter Association, said his members also look forward to the program.

"I'm pretty excited about it," he said, noting that the free physicals could become a recruiting tool for new volunteers. "A lot of people don't want to know, but early recognition of health problems is important."

Heart attacks are actually the leading cause of line-of-duty death among firefighters. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 40 of the 87 line-of-duty firefighter deaths nationwide in 2005 were from sudden cardiac failure.

Firefighter Stevens noted how stressful the job can be.

"One minute you are sitting at the dinner table. Thirty seconds later the alarm rings and you are putting on 80 pounds of turnout gear," he said, noting it isn't good for a heart. "Your heart rate triples."

Chief Stamm said he hopes this new program will help firefighters keep their tickers fit and their bodies out of the hospital.

"We want to maintain a fitness standard," he said.

Division Chief Stuart McNicol, spokesman for the county, said current firefighter fitness varies greatly - particularly because the county started requirinwg recruits take a fitness test two years ago.

"There are different levels. Some of our newer hires ... are right there. Our older members are further away from that standard," Chief McNicol said.

He said other departments have launched similar health and fitness programs, and seen reductions in line-of-duty injuries and workers' compensation claims.

The county fire department actually is a leader in firefighter safety. The Emmitsburg-based National Fallen Firefighters Foundation on April 20 awarded Fire Chief Ronald Blackwell with its third "Seal of Excellence" - specifically because of his dedication to preventing line-of-duty deaths.

And last year, the department filmed a 20-minute safety and health video to reinforce best practices on how to live and work as a firefighter.

The county's money was included in the Department of Homeland Security's 2007 spending bill. President George W. Bush signed the $662 million bill into law in October.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, however, blasted Mr. Bush for not using more of the program's $1 billion authorized funding level.

"How can the president support Homeland Security when he has proposed cuts to the most valuable funding source for America's firefighters?" she said in a release.

"We need to support our first responders with more than just words,"