The Firefighter Throwdown at FRI changed the expo floor, filling it with cheering applause and loud music. The athletes on the floor gave their all and encouraged their brothers and sisters to push their bodies to extremes. I was a proud competitor who finished 30th in the open male division.
In my career, I have never before thought I could be on that floor with these great athletes. I've worked my tail off to become fire chief of a great organization; that same work ethic was necessary to get on that floor in August.
Like so many others, my early road to physical fitness had been average at best. I've struggled with my weight and I would only consider myself as in shape early in my career. The change started over five years ago while attending FRI.
In a course taught by Chief Brian Crawford, he stated that fire chiefs need to have regular workout programs. This rang in my head while I struggled with my weight, though I was able to hold my own on most incidents. I had the mindset that I was just a bigger person and running three times a week was good enough for me.
Through the process of becoming fire chief, I gained more weight. My pants wouldn't button and my turnout gear became a little more than snug. I was aware of a new facility moving in next to our fire station: Brighton Crossfit. When we conducted a final inspection of the occupancy, the owner made his push to help the fire department become more fit.
I gave him some face time as the new neighbor, but thought it wasn't for me. Many of my staff told me how crazy Crossfit was and warned of the injuries that may happen.
After I was appointed as fire chief, the words of Chief Crawford rang in my head. Then I was invited by John, a coach from next door, to come try a free workout. I agreed and tried to bring a couple of peers to join me. I came with workout shoes and shorts; they showed up in uniforms and pledged to watch me.
The trainers had us warm up with squats, rowing, jumping jacks, pushups and some range of motion exercises. The workout appeared simple on a whiteboard: row 500 meters and do 40 air squats, 30 sit-ups, 20 pushups, 10 jumping pull-ups. I couldn't complete a single regular pull up, so we modified it.
I went at it and 8 minutes, 48 seconds later it was over. The workout took its toll on me, and took me 30 minutes to recover.
My brain raced. What if this had been a fire? This was a much shorter work period than on an incident scene; how could it take me that long to recover?
I realized during this long 30 minutes that I was really out of shape: 250 lbs, 40"+ waist, high cholesterol and about to take on the most stressful job in my professional career. I was intrigued that such a short workout could pack such a punch and was truly functional for the rigors of firefighting. How could I serve as the leader of a great organization, advocate for health and fitness and be this out of shape?
Needless to say, I signed up for a membership immediately.
It took me four weeks of foundation classes to learn how to squat, perform Olympic lifts and use proper form. Each time the soreness in my body seemed to get worse and worse. The staff took plenty of shots about how I walked funny after a workout or how much effort it took to get my arms over my head.
The atmosphere at the box was much different than any workout scheme I had been a part of; from the strongest person in the room to the newest, there was a sense of accomplishment, pride and competition among the athletes; it reminded me of the days of PT in our fire academy, where we supported each and every cadet.
Over the last three years, the weights I can lift have increased dramatically, my form has gotten better and my weight has gone down: 192 lbs. with a 34" waist. I work out five days a week, often at least twice a day, from performing a workout of the day to practicing Olympic lifts or some form of squats with rope climbs.
Statistics are interesting when you log what you lift and times on benchmark workouts, but the most fascinating statistic has been my cholesterol. For years, I attributed my issue to genetics and was on and off medication. During a recent department physical, results indicated my cholesterol was below the norm—the lowest ever in my adult life.
Competitions such as the Firefighter Throwdown have given me goals for the countless workouts that lead up to them. Just as a runner plans for a 5K or half marathon, athletes train hard for this competition. Fine-tuning diets, making workouts count and learning to push each other are all aspects of competition.
In addition, I've been able to meet the future of the fire service that will be the foundation for changing our profession into an athletic profession. The men and women who competed in Dallas and San Diego are truly inspiring. Their stories of bringing fitness to their companies, stations, departments and even their academies where they instruct are inspiring.
How does all this apply to the position of fire chief and our role in the fire service? The answer is a difficult one that comes in many parts. At the competition, I was blown away by the lack of support many athletes reported they received from their organizations—not financially, but moral support for being involved in the organization and with fitness.
I'm reminded of the phrase, "He can talk the talk, but does he walk the walk?" I know not every single one of the firefighters I work with will become high-level athletes, but the changes in so many have been an inspiration for me.
Our organization hosts a 9/11 memorial 5K; this year, more than 30 of our firefighters walked or ran in full turnout gear with PPE to remember those men who lost their lives from the FDNY.
Our senior staff members all have regular fitness routines, from walking each day to Crossfit. The health gains in our senior staff have been unbelievable and truly have set the tone for our organization.
When lifting significant amount of weights or during a benchmark workout, I look for the small gains that when added together become large gains. This has carried over to leadership in the fire service. Changing an organization's culture or building relationships to move the fire service to the next level takes small gains that must be celebrated.
Sacrifice and consistency play such big roles. As fire chief, you need to show up and be engaged in the organization. The same goes with a regular fitness routine; showing up some days is 80% of the battle.
If we're not consistent in training or working out, our skills won't be as fast, as safe or as efficient as those that are honed and regularly practiced. This is also true with our mental toughness. The ability to push past the wall when my brain tells me to stop has made me a better fire chief. This challenge has taught me more about myself then an over 100% increase on my back squat.