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Airport firefighters fight to stay fit

By Ed Brock

Prone on a cot, his chest a jungle of EKG sensor cords, Firefighter David Crockett felt very confident about his health.

"I work out every shift. I run on my off days," said Crockett,

Crockett will admit, however, that his diet is not restricted.

"I pretty much eat whatever I want," Crockett said, adding that he really eats a lot when on call at the station.

Crockett is one of more than 200 firefighters stationed at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

They are responsible for fighting airplane and structure fires at the airport and providing emergency medical services for millions of visitors and the more than 55,000 employees at the airport.

Making sure firefighters like Crockett are at the top of the game physically is why Hartsfield-Jackson has started a new program to evaluate and improve their health.

"Because our firefighters perform such an invaluable service to our airport community under very demanding circumstances, maintaining their health and well-being is of the utmost importance to the operation of the world's busiest airport," said Hartsfield-Jackson General Manager Ben DeCosta at a press conference announcing the program.

On Friday exercise physiologists with North Greenville Fitness and Cardiac Rehabilitation Clinic, Inc., a South Carolina-based company, were in Fire Station 40 to demonstrate the exams each firefighter is undergoing. DeCosta told the crowd of firefighters something they may have already known, that cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death and sprains and strains are the leading cause of injury.

"Firefighters are in better shape than most people in the work force," DeCosta said. "But they are performing at the level of a professional athlete without the benefit of a pre-game warm up, stretches or even mental preparation."

So far, though, the testing has shown some encouraging results, said Doug Miller, deputy fire chief of the Atlanta Fire Department's Airport Fire Operations.

"Throughout the testing we really have not had that many referrals (for further medical treatment,)" Miller said.

During Phase I of the program the firefighters filled out health history forms and had some blood work done. In Phase II they undergo the assessments and following those assessments the firefighters receive an exercise prescription.

Already the fire department has installed several sets of exercise equipment, one in each station, two at the headquarters and six in a training center. The equipment includes a universal weight machine, an elliptical trainer and a recumbent stationary bicycle.

The technicians with the North Greenville clinic will return in four or five months for follow up evaluations, and then again five months after that, Miller said.

For 26 years the clinic has been evaluating firefighters around the country, said Charles Turner, president of the clinic. Since Sept. 11 the evaluations have increased thanks in part to grants that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been distributing, Turner said.

"Departments large and small have gotten them all across the country," Turner said.

In fact it is money from the federal Fire Act Grant that is paying for the $400,000 program at Hartsfield-Jackson. But Turner said regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration require firefighters to be physically able to perform emergency rescue work and to be free of heart disease, epilepsy and emphysema.

"Firefighters are required by the very nature of hazardous material calls to be physically fit. It's in the federal law," said Atlanta Fire Chief Dennis Rubin. "We want every member of this organization to be fit for duty and what they call fit for life."