Leading by Example: Local Fire and Police Departments Get Pumped When It Comes to Fitness

By Cindy A. Dickinson

Few careers—in any field—require the level of physical fitness needed by police and firefighters in departments throughout the state. We (the people they keep safe) directly benefit from first responders who keep themselves in shape. And safety departments that provide quality, worksite fitness programs help their employees stay in optimal physical condition. Here are profiles of two departments in New Hampshire which are truly “walking the talk" when it comes to promoting worksite fitness.

Salem Police Department

Captain Shawn Patten of the Salem Police Department proudly shows off its state-of-the-art fitness center. The converted former squad room is part of a station originally built in the mid ‘60s for a department of 12. The station is now home to 60 full-time and 20 part-time officers plus support staff.

A new building is planned for 2016. Meanwhile, department staff members—under the leadership of Captain Patten with active support from Police Chief Paul Donovan—have worked together to create a model fitness facility.

Patten credits Chief Donovan’s personal and professional commitment to fitness as a driving force behind the facility’s creation. “The Chief keeps himself in great shape and encourages [the same for] the officers," says Patten, adding, “He sees physical fitness as an important part of law enforcement."

Fitness center labor was contributed by volunteers from the department at no cost to taxpayers as materials and equipment were purchased with drug asset forfeiture money. Construction took only two weeks, with as many as five officers painting and prepping simultaneously to transform the old squad room.

Patten consulted with Fitness Equipment, Inc. of Salem about the facility’s layout and equipment to purchase. “We couldn’t be happier," says Patten. “The gym is heavily used, and there are many times when it is crowded. Even our non-sworn staff is using it, and six of our officers have given up their outside gym memberships."

Many of Salem’s police officers are experienced athletes who have played sports and lifted weights for years. Several hold academic degrees in exercise physiology and are personal trainers. The more experienced exercisers willingly help those who aren’t sure about creating a personal fitness program.

Creation and use of the fitness center have boosted staff morale as well as their physical stamina and strength. “Building assistance received from across all unions was outstanding," notes Patten. “And we couldn’t have done it without the volunteers," he acknowledges.

Wide participation and support has given all department staff a vested interest in both the facility and in keeping fit. And, even though it’s often difficult for police officers to find time to stay in shape, the convenience of having an onsite gym has made it easier to work out before or after shifts. Successful outcomes include a 30-pound loss by a sergeant preparing for the FBI National Academy course of study and up to 20-pound losses by several officers who previously struggled to shed their excess weight.

More recently, Officer Brendan Gleason took first place in both the Men’s Novice ‘B’ and Open ‘B’ portions of the Organization of Competitive Bodybuilders’ Judgment Day Competition on June 13 in Carver, Massachusetts. Gleason, who placed second overall, accomplished most of his training at the department’s fitness facility.

Windham Fire Department

At the Windham Fire Department, Lieutenant Tim Dunn is leading by example. With the department since 1996, Dunn recently assumed the role of its wellness coordinator.

During the past year, Dunn has actively gathered fitness information and training tips to share with Windham’s firefighters, encouraging good nutrition and increased physical activity for staff. Realizing he needed more background in fitness and wellness, Dunn pursued and attained certification as a personal trainer. “I needed to know how to work with the guys," he says, admitting his own fitness routine had fallen off a little before becoming the department’s wellness coordinator.

Not only did Dunn get the ball rolling for improving fitness levels at the station, his personal training push enabled him to successfully compete in the Timberman Sprint Triathlon held on August 22 in Gilford. Dunn’s consistent running, swimming and biking workouts, along with twice-weekly weight training at the department gym, prepped him for the triathlon event.

Of the department’s 20 full-time firefighters, five on-call firefighters and four administrative staff members, Dunn estimates that about one third of them use the gym. It features Universal® gym equipment, funded by a New Hampshire Local Government Center (LGC) HealthTrust WELLDollars Discretionary Grant in 2000, along with limited cardio equipment and free weights. Future plans call for purchasing an elliptical trainer and additional weights.

Dunn is always working to create an enthusiastic response to the gym by e-mailing promotional information to staff. He has also partnered with LGC’s Risk and Health Management Department to distribute pedometers and conduct fitness assessments for formulating personalized fitness programs.

There is now a wellness bulletin board in the station where Dunn posts information about fitness and nutrition. He regularly updates the board with new handouts, articles and items of interest and notices staff making healthier decisions about food and exercise as a result. “People are no longer uninformed about their choices," observes Dunn.

Because firefighters in New Hampshire are currently not required to pass periodic fitness evaluations, many departments—like Windham’s—are taking responsibility for firefighter fitness. “Our responsibility—to the public and to each other—is to be physically fit for the job," Dunn contends.

Tools to Keep Staff Healthy

Both Salem Police and Windham Fire departments actively participate in the LGC’s available Risk and Health Management programs and workshops throughout the course of year. One such program is LGC’s Fitness for Every BODY—Is Yours Ready to Respond Workshop slated for Wednesday, November 4, at the Fire Academy in Concord.

Specifically designed for emergency responders, the 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. session is designed to teach participants how to develop appropriate workouts to build a fit and healthy body with limited time and equipment and to prepare for the extreme physical stresses of the job.

Both Salem and Windham departments also plan to apply for a 2010 WELLDollars Grant from LGC HealthTrust. The grants are annually awarded to help groups implement appropriate, onsite health and safety activities that work to reduce employees’ overall health risks. To request a WELLDollars application, call LGC HealthTrust at 800.852.3358 or 603.224.7447 and ask for our Risk and Health Management Department. You can also e-mail us at: risk&health@nhlgc.org.

Cindy Dickinson is a health management representative of New Hampshire Local Government Center and an ACE certified personal trainer.