- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2016

GREENSBURG, Pa. (AP) - Tom Bell knew something had to give.

The 48-year-old Greensburg assistant deputy fire chief nearly collapsed after climbing five stories to the roof of the Westmoreland County Courthouse annex one day about 18 months ago.

“I was out of wind by the time I got to the second level. (Assistant Fire Chief) Don Kundrick was with me, and I looked at him and said, ‘I gotta do something,’ ” Bell recalled.

That fearful moment when Bell, who has been with the group for more than 30 years, thought his heart was about to jump out of his chest became the impetus for the Greensburg Firefighter Boot Camp.

The program, now 15 months old, meets on two nights a week for two hours of fitness training developed with firefighters in mind.



Marianne Anzovino, director of the Greensburg Aerobic Center, laughed when Bell approached her about starting a program for the firefighters.

“I reminded Tom we only had two AEDs (heart defibrillators) in the building,” Anzovino said.

The Greensburg Volunteer Fire Department made national headlines when it helped build the Aerobic Center and kicked off a fitness program there in 1978. But in the interim, many had fallen away from the fitness routines they helped pilot. And like Bell, a towering bear of a man at 6 feet 2 inches and 285 pounds, many of the firefighters were approaching the far side of middle age.

But Bell was good to his word.

Initially, about two dozen firefighters signed on for the program. Most of them are still attending, some accompanied by family members. Others have signed on to the program, attracted to the fun of it after watching the firefighters laugh and sweat as they go through their workouts.

In the best of all worlds, experts say such programs would be an integral part of the volunteer fire service.

“Practicing functional fitness is very important for firefighters. Research shows firefighters are more at risk for cardiac events than the general population. They are the leading cause of firefighter deaths,” said Kimberly Quiros of the National Volunteer Fire Council.

Quiros said it’s hard for volunteers to carve out time for fitness. Between their day jobs, fundraisers and keeping up with mandated fire service training, many are stretched to the max.

“We do have fitness demonstration videos of exercises firefighters can do at the department using equipment that is available. We also have webinars on functional fitness,” she said.

Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Tim Solobay, a longtime volunteer firefighter, said fitness is critical for volunteers who strap on 50 to 75 pounds of equipment to battle blazes.

Ten Pennsylvania firefighters died on the job last year. All were volunteers, and nine of the 10 deaths were related to heart attacks or strokes, Solobay said.

Bell’s just happy he’s not among that number.

While he may not have lost a lot of weight, Bell, who is a golf course supervisor by day, said he’s firmed up and improved his endurance, thanks to equal doses of cross-training, power pump and indoor cycling every Tuesday and Thursday.

On a recent evening, those gathered for the boot camp workout ranged from 75-year-old Bob Blissman, who helped build the Aerobic Center 38 years ago, to 10-year-old Brett Steele, who is there to help and encourage his 43-year-old dad, Rick.

In a small windowless room at one end of the center, firefighters pedal furiously as instructor Jim Knechtel barks out commands during an indoor cycling class to the sound of Meat Loaf’s rock ballad “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”

The firefighters laugh and sing along as they pedal and perspire to the nearly nine-minute anthem to fumbling teenage lust.

Rick Steele can’t forget his first session on the bikes.

“It was a killer. Your butt hurt. You felt just awful,” he said.

But he and his friends came back again and again. Now it’s fun, he said.

Halfway across the center, other boot camp regulars move from station to station, doing squat thrusts with a big exercise ball, prancing through an obstacle course, heaving a massive rope and swinging kettle balls as trainer Alicia Pacek walks around calling time to the loud beat of the theme from “Rocky.”

“Only one more minute and 40 seconds, guys. Don’t quit now,” Pacek yells to the hoots and howls of the sweaty firefighters shortly before ordering them into a minute of jumping jacks.

“Take a breather. Make sure you drink enough water,” she yells after several more fast-paced station changes.

The firefighters had one demand when boot camp began, Pacek said: “They complained about the aerobics music. If they were going to work out, it had to be to their music - ‘70s and ‘80s rock-and-roll.”

Motivated by a new playlist and a trainer who laughs with them, the firefighters turn out week after week … and the results are showing.

“They’ve come a long way,” Pacek said, shaking her head and grinning at the group.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1SB4dSX

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com

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