Imagine a marketing campaign that can increase membership, improve community outreach and help save lives. The target? Firefighters.

Firefighters make a living at the risk of dying. How else can you describe a profession that involves blazing buildings and choking clouds of black smoke?

While the dangers associated with firefighting may seem fairly obvious, the reality is surprising. Yes, firefighters must beware of burns and smoke inhalation, but heart attacks actually kill more firefighters than the fires themselves do.

“For over 120 years, more firefighters die in the line of duty…as a result of a cardiac disease,” says Kevin Malley, director of human performance at the New York City Fire Department.

Naturally, a consistent fitness program can reduce these deaths, as exercise has been shown to prevent heart disease. Exercise can also reduce other on-the-job injuries that commonly afflict firefighters (e.g., lower-back problems). Moreover, a fitness program can help firefighters develop the strength and cardiac capacity necessary to perform their duties better.

“When [you] go out there, you have 112 pounds of clothing and equipment you are running with,” Malley says. “You are completely encapsulated. This isn't a walk in the park. You are running up 10 flights of stairs, six flights of stairs, then when you get there, you have to get to work.”

Factor in stress and extreme heat and you see the danger that deconditioned firefighters face.

In an effort to spread the fitness message to firefighters, Club Industry has teamed with Fire Chief, a sister publication that reaches more than 50,000 fire officials. Together, we have published a special section in the April issue of Fire Chief on the benefits of a firefighter fitness program.

This presents club operators with an excellent opportunity to provide their services to fire officials (who, after finishing the April issue of Fire Chief, will have fitness fresh in their minds). True, the fire officials may simply decide to install exercise equipment in their stations, but their departments probably lack the expertise, interest and motivation that a successful fitness program requires. That's where clubs come in.

Consider that the fitness concept is not exactly new to fire departments. However, acceptance has been slow, even nonexistent in some cases. So perhaps your club can help move it along, while benefiting your business.

Selling fitness to fire officials will take some work, though. Paul O. Davis, Ph.D., president of On Target Challenge Inc. (DBA On Target Communications) in Washington, D.C., knows this from experience. He has been promoting fitness to firefighters for 35 years. For the last 10, his company has been responsible for the Firefighter Combat Challenge, a national contest that tests the physical mettle of firefighters.

Despite decades of effort, Dr. Davis has faced resistance from the fire service. “At one point and time, they were firmly ensconced against the idea of being physically fit,” he says.

Fear of Fitness


The opposition comes from all fronts. Fire officials fear the costs and potential harm associated with fitness. The unions worry that fitness initiatives will punish the out-of-shape firefighters. In some cases, the firefighters themselves out-and-out reject the thought of exercise.

Still, support for firefighter fitness does exist on a national level. The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) have worked together to back the Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness/Fitness Initiative, an effort to implement fitness programs in fire departments.

“It's certainly a welcome relief from what has been a fairly staid position,” Dr. Davis says of the initiative. “The advocacy of fitness by the two organizations that would have the most to benefit is certainly welcome. But there is no mandate for people to exercise.”

In other words, the initiative gives the nuts and bolts of firefighter fitness, but doesn't recommend any consequences for personnel who don't exercise. There isn't a “be fit or be fired” proposal. Nor is it likely that there ever will be

Just ask firefighter David Odum. He and four other firefighters own Firehouse Fitness, a health club in Riverdale, Ga. While the firefighter partners have influenced some peers to work out, their fire department has not been as lucky.

According to Odum, the department tried to introduce a fitness program that included regular physicals, but many firefighters resisted. Some even threatened lawsuits. That killed the program before it even got started.

This may make the fire service seem like a bleak prospect, but keep in mind that firefighters work in a fragmented industry — from well-funded urban fire departments to smaller, rural volunteer houses. When it comes to fitness, opinions will vary.

When pitching fitness services — whether it be discounted memberships or on-site training — be prepared to assuage any worries. (See sidebar, Here's the Proof.) Talk about the benefits of your program (e.g., healthier work force), and describe the steps you will take to reduce the risk of exercise-related injury. Offer to conduct fitness assessments as a means of motivation, not as a form of punishment.

The point is this: Yes, local fire officials may greet you with apathy. On the other hand, they may be fitness enthusiasts who welcome your help.

Take New York City. Both the fire commissioner and union president are fitness buffs. That's how Malley became director of human performance, a position he has held for five years.

In his role, Malley has made fitness a part of recruit training. New York's fledgling firefighters not only learn about exercise, they learn how to teach exercise to other firefighters. So when the recruits finish the program, they exit the academy as peer trainers.

Although rookie firefighters can't tell vets to change their lifestyles (unless they are looking for some creative advice concerning the storage of hoses), they can lead by example. New York hires 600 firefighters annually, so the department now boasts 3,000 people who, having passed the fitness program, are inspiring other firefighters to get into shape.

“[P]rior to this program, the average New York City firefighter gained between 9 and 15 pounds of fat on the first year on the job, which is astonishing,” Malley says. “Since this program has been in effect, that number has been reduced to less than 5.”

Fitness proponents would like to see this type of peer training make headway in other departments. In fact, at the request of the IAFF, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) is creating Peer Fitness Trainer certification specifically for firefighters.

“It is called the Peer Fitness Trainer certification because it is going to differ from historical personal trainer certification or group fitness certification,” says Ken Germano, executive director of ACE. “The tasks and skills are germane to firefighters, inclusive of all the physical activity aspects and all of the physiology and kinesiology that firefighters need to understand.”

While certification and similar training will educate firefighters about fitness, they will still need a place to exercise. Fire departments may install their own equipment, but on-site fitness facilities do have drawbacks. For instance, if firefighters work out too much during their shift, they may hinder their work. For this reason, fire officials may be open to discounted memberships that will allow their off-duty personnel to use your club.

Town Sports International (TSI), the New York City-based club chain, provides discounted memberships to firefighters and other civil servants (such as police officers), a sales practice that has been very successful, according to Maggie Stevens, TSI's vice president of sales. Here's how it works: The chain makes free one-week memberships available to firefighters. Firefighters can then try out a TSI club and, if they like the experience, they can purchase a membership for half the normal rate — sometimes less.

“We have some fire departments that subsidize,” Stevens explains. “They pay a portion for the firefighters.”

Respected Profession


Germano is a big believer in giving firefighters a discount on memberships. “Firefighters are serving the community,” he says. “I'd charge firefighters $10 a month or so. I'd just want them in the club. They set good examples. [The firefighter union is] only the 17th largest union in the United States, but they are probably the most popular.”

Indeed, firefighters are so respected, just having them in your club could do wonders for your community outreach, an important part of business. So publicize your efforts to get firefighters into the club. Let members, prospects and the media know that you have opened up your club to firefighters. You'll benefit from the positive word of mouth.

TSI benefits from positive word of mouth by donating its used exercise equipment to fire departments. Giving firefighters the means to work out is a goodwill effort that ultimately pays off for the chain.

“They might tell a friend or they might spread the word, saying, ‘Hey, we got this equipment and it was donated by TSI,’” Stevens explains. This type of publicity not only draws firefighters, it draws anyone impressed with the donation.

This isn't the only way that a firefighter fitness program can attract members. If you plan on putting together exercise offerings specifically for firefighters, you may find that other members and prospects want to join in. Just look at Crunch's Action Firefighter Workout, a class conceived by a personal trainer who also happens to be a firefighter.

While teaching group exercise at Crunch, the trainer began to incorporate firefighter-type activities into the class. Eventually, the workout evolved to emulate a firefighting experience.

Instead of the high-intensity music played during group exercise, the Action Firefighter Workout blares out the sounds of 911 calls and sirens. Body Bars become hoses, and exercisers use Steps to mimic going up the staircase of a large, burning building. At the end of the class, participants pretend to save an unconscious victim (actually a 90 pound CPR dummy).

Men, who normally shy away from group exercise, have been big fans of this intense class. “[I]t's a much, much more physically challenging workout,” says Donna Cyrus, Crunch's national group fitness director.

Pumping Up Firefighters
While most clubs may not have siren sounds and CPR dummies available for a class, they can take other approaches to create firefighter-specific fitness programs. For example, the Dedham Health and Athletic Complex has made a BodyPump class the cornerstone of a program for Boston firefighters.

Since firefighters may be required to carry heavy equipment up and down stairs, Dedham wanted a program that covered all the basic muscle group movements. BodyPump fit the bill.

“It's high muscle endurance,” says Guy Caracciolo, Dedham's fitness director. “It's repetitive.”

Dedham put the program together as part of a study for the Boston fire department, which has been alarmed by the high number of on-the-job heart attacks and injuries among its personnel. A medically oriented fitness center that handles physical therapy for Boston fire department, Dedham was a logical choice to test the effectiveness of a wellness program that could prolong the health of firefighters.

“The research is out there that exercise does reduce your risk of heart attack and numerous other diseases associated with inactivity and poor eating habits,” Caracciolo explains.

The Dedham program puts that research to the test using firefighters. The program's goal is to study 200 firefighters and report the findings back to the Boston fire department. Thus far, two groups (totaling nearly 150 firefighters) have completed the program, and, at press time, another 50 were about to take part.

Each program begins and ends with comprehensive fitness assessments to measure progress. (See sidebar, Here's the Proof.) The program, itself, lasts three months for each group.

“We like them to come in 36 times, so three times a week,” Caracciolo says. “Two times a week, they are required to take BodyPump. And one time a week, we require them to take a strength fitness class. And each time they come in, they have to perform a half hour of cardiovascular activity.” So each visit lasts 90 minutes.

While the goal of the program/study is to show that exercise is beneficial for firefighters, Dedham isn't waiting for all the data to be tabulated before spreading the fitness message. Through the program, Dedham is encouraging the firefighters to make fitness a more permanent fixture in their lives — either by joining a club or by exercising on their own.

“Of the first [group], we had 19 sign up [at Dedham],” Caracciolo says. “I know a fair amount had signed up at other clubs…local to them. I also know that it has made exercise more of a conscious thought to them, where they wind up performing more consistent exercise…even in the firehouse.”

Maybe getting firefighters to exercise in the fire stations won't earn you money immediately, but the rewards could be even greater some day.

“Hey, you never know when you'll need them,” Stevens says with a laugh. “You definitely want them to be in shape.” That alone may be all the incentive you to need to bring fitness to firefighters.


Here's the Proof

As the fire service's elder fitness statesman, Paul O. Davis, Ph.D., of On Target Challenge Inc., is accustomed to calls from firefighters seeking information about exercise programs. However, he can't get accustomed to the most common question that they ask: “How do I show higher officials that fitness programs are cost effective?”

“It's like going back and trying to prove that there is gravity,” says Dr. Davis with a mixture of humor and disgust. “How long are we going to continue to question the obvious? We have all this data from these public health models showing the paybacks, particularly in the industrial setting where we show a return of a buck and half to five bucks for every dollar spent on [fitness] programs. And the fire service is still languishing over how we are going to prove that this is going to have a benefit.”

Given the wealth of information supporting the health and cost benefits of fitness programs, one can understand Dr. Davis' frustration. Still, he raises a good point: Fire departments are going to want some proof that a fitness program will be worth the expense.

Therefore, when selling your fitness services, you should reassure fire officials of the cost savings (again, $1.50 to $5 for every dollar invested). If they want more specifics, you could cite the fitness study that the Dedham Health and Athletic Complex has been conducting with Boston firefighters.

Although the study is ongoing, Dedham has generated statistics for 64 Boston firefighters who participated in a three-month fitness program during the spring of 2000. The firefighters came into the facility three times a week. Each session lasted 90 minutes, and included both cardio and strength activities.

The firefighters' fitness backgrounds varied. Some exercised regularly before the study, others were completely new to exercise. Their ages were between 24 and 57, with a mean age of 41.

Dedham conducted fitness assessments before and after the program to measure the firefighters' progress. Some key findings (given as a mean) include:

  • Before the program, total body weight was 207.5 pounds. The post-program weight was 205.7.

  • Pre-program lean weight (i.e., lean muscle mass) was 161.4 pounds. Post-program was 165.2 pounds.

  • Pre-program fat mass was 46.1 pounds. It dropped to 40.5.

  • Predicted max VO2 was 36.7 milliliters per kilogram per minute before the program. It went up to 43.1 after the program.

  • Pre-program pushups was 30. Post-program pushups was 43.

  • Maximum leg press was 309 pounds before the program. It was 402 after.

  • Before the program, sit-and-reach was 14.7 inches. It was 16.3 inches at the program's finish.

  • On average, the firefighters lost an inch off their abdomens. Hips also went down an inch.

While the Dedham study can't be presented as straightforward scientific research (certain control factors were lacking), it does offer strong anecdotal evidence for clubs wishing to sell fitness programs to fire departments. Clearly, the firefighters reduced fat, gained muscle, got stronger, and showed improvements in flexibility and aerobic capacity.