Firefighters focus on health & wellness to aid in fighting fires

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Not only do firefighters put their lives on the line on a daily basis, but they also fight exhaustion, pain and fight to stay fit.

It's all so Milwaukee firefighters like Jim Malecki and Lorenzo Williams can fight flames for years to come.

Perhaps the only actual fire burning in the basement of the Milwaukee Firefighter Academy may be the one in the belly of Health and Safety Officer Jason Mims.

"You need to be fit focus and able to perform the job in the way the citizens of Milwaukee expect us to," Mims said.

These firefighters participate in voluntary off-day workouts led by highly-trained volunteers like Lt. Jordan Ponder. It is part of a program Mims has helped spread through the entire fire department in just the last two years.

"Reason we did it is because we`re spending millions of dollars on injuries and 60% of those were connected with strains and sprains," Mims said.

To improve this problem, the wellness program includes new free physical training session for firefighters, featuring exercises easily repeatable on similar equipment at all firehouses.

Mims says until recently, houses didn't even have consistent workout equipment, but there's a lot more to the program.

"We know that the number one firefighter fatality is heart attacks and after that is cancer," Mims said.

The program also includes an annual advanced medical screening paid for with money from FEMA.

Mims says he is perhaps most proud of the peer support part of the program.

"Death, divorce, financial issues -- that all affects them out in the field. We`ve found having a peer they can talk to is one of the best support systems that`s in place," Mims said.

Mims says admittedly, all of this is expensive. There were sizable upfront costs associated with equipment and training the fitness trainers, as well as peer counselors.

However, this program is actually saving Milwaukee taxpayers thousands in healthcare costs, overtime spent to fill in for the injured and disability payments.

Mims says long-term projects puts the city on track for huge savings.

"It's estimated that when you start this off you get $3 back for everyone dollar spent because of savings on injuries on health insurance costs as well," Mims said.

Because of the monetary and medical motivations, the fire department is pushing the program on their cadets. Nutritional health is stressed to younger future firefighters with the hope being they'll life the fitness and food habits of their fellow firefighters once they're placed in firehouses around the city.

"We`re trying to establish a foundation and culture of health and overall fitness," Mims said.

Many involved in the program credit the current fire administration and the fire chief for really bringing this program about.