Exercise to the rescue

Times Staff Writer

In the recent wildfires that swept through Southern California, more than 14,000 firefighters battled walls of flames, cut trees, set backfires and plowed firebreaks for days at a time. The stamina and strength required for the job obviously demand a strong dedication to physical training.

At the Los Angeles Fire Department, firefighters engage in a range of vigorous workouts designed to enhance strength, conditioning and flexibility. Their individual routines, which vary depending upon personal ability, aren't by and large anything you can't do at home or at a health club. The key difference is that a firefighter's commitment to exercise is driven by the sobering knowledge that a life may depend on his or her performance.

Although the department suggests a 30-minute circuit-training program -- which includes basics such as push-ups, stomach crunches and pull-ups -- each firefighter usually chooses his or her regimen. Encouraged to exercise during their shifts, most firefighters hit the cardio machines and free weights, which are standard equipment in most fire stations. But when emergency calls interrupt training, physical fitness becomes something firefighters must pursue on their own.

Recently I tagged along with a platoon of firefighters from Fire Station No. 95 (near Los Angeles International Airport) for a workout at a nearby city training facility -- one equipped with a track, outdoor obstacle course and first-rate health club equipment. Everyone from the group headed over to the health club except rookie Ken Reindl -- he wanted to shore up his stair-climbing skills.

If there's one thing all firefighters must be able to do efficiently, it's navigate stairs. On a recent drill, Reindl, who's been at his current post for about two months, had trouble making it up 17 flights. Of course, at the time, the 170-pound Corona resident was carrying -- as firefighters often do -- an extra 110 pounds in gear and equipment.

But before we hit the steps, we began with a 10-minute warm-up jog around the track. After that, we outfitted ourselves with about half the weight firefighters typically must lug up stairwells. We wore the heavy firefighter's jacket and the helmet, and then strapped an oxygen tank onto our backs. In all, it added about 50 pounds.

Reindl's goal was to do 13 trips, or what amounted to 52 flights of stairs. My goal was to keep up as best I could. The start was fine. We had a nice even pace, one step at a time up the indoor carpeted stairs.

The first trip was no problem; on trips two and three, I was winded going up, but caught my breath coming down. By trip four or five, I began to feel the effects of carrying so much additional weight. And with the heavy jacket sealing in my body heat, I could feel the sweat drenching my T-shirt.

Reindl began to put some distance between us on the fourth and fifth rounds. He was steady and sure, and I was slowing down considerably. In the end, I made 10 trips up and back. Not bad for a newcomer, but the city expects more than that from its firefighters.

We walked back into the parking lot to take off our gear. I noticed on the way that my legs were a little rubbery and knew for sure my calves were going to be extra sore the next day (I was right). At that point, one of the station's captains, Bob McElroy, asked if I was ready to lift some weights. Not unless I have a forklift, I thought.

Then a call came over the radio. A fire alarm had gone off at LAX's Terminal 2. Everyone's workout halted immediately; firefighters dashed for the truck and got their gear on, and off we went -- sirens blaring -- to the airport. It turned out to be a false alarm, apparently a common occurrence. The 20-minute-or-so break, however, gave me a chance to recover from the stair-climbing.

On most days, the firefighters probably would have called it a day, physical fitness-wise, and returned to their many station tasks. But today the workout would finish up with an exercise in chopping wood.

As part of its proposed LAX expansion plan, the city has purchased a number of apartment complexes and buildings near the airport. Days before the structures are due for demolition, the fire department is allowed to train at the sites. Whenever a building becomes available, they get out the axes and hack away. "You can only learn so much from a book," said McElroy.

Reindl, a couple of other firefighters and I were to climb to the roof of a three-story apartment building and, with long-handled axes, cut a 3-by-3-foot hole in the roof -- in three minutes. Such holes act as chimneys, allowing heat and smoke (the elements of a fire that cause the most injuries) to exit the building. As McElroy said, the roof-chopping exercise is a direct application of their physical fitness.

Up on the roof, I received some crash instructions on how best to smash through. The ax didn't feel heavy at first, and though my technique prompted comments such as "You grew up in the city, didn't you?" I was actually hitting the broadside of a roof and not injuring myself.

Of course, my ax kept getting stuck in the roof, and I had to repeatedly reach down and pull it out. It was clear within three minutes I wouldn't make it. Although I tried speeding up, my aim was too poor and I got very tired, very quickly. It was a bright morning, and the sweat poured down my face, stinging my eyes.

"Now just imagine," offered another firefighter, "that it's dark, you don't know what's up here and the building is on fire."

No thanks. McElroy stepped in with his ax, and after a few more minutes we finally ended up punching a couple of holes in the roof. In total, I probably didn't swing the ax for more than four or five minutes, but I was exhausted.

The day was enlightening in many respects. I left with a renewed appreciation for the strenuous physical demands of firefighters' job -- and their level of fitness.



Snapshot: Firefighter workout

Duration of activity: 44 minutes; included a 10-minute warm-up, 22 minutes on the stairs and 12 minutes of roof-walking and wood-chopping. (Activities weren't continuous.)

Calories burned*: 679

Heart rate*: Average, 146; high, 183

*This information was obtained using a heart-rate monitor.


Martin Miller can be reached at martin.miller@latimes.com.

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