Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Early Days of Fitness in the Fire Service (circa 1976)

Rare Photo of Rule in Uniform
When I read the biography for Charley Rule, in the class of 2021 (Hall of Legends) I thought as perhaps one of his living contemporaries there needed to be more content. In 1976, I was a faculty member at the University of Maryland’s Sports Medicine Center. We had just finished a major research project where the City of Alexandria had made a significant contribution by supporting our efforts with career firefighters who were participants in a work-simulation and laboratory-based fitness assessment. It was Chief Rule who saw the value and took it two steps further. 

Alexandria would be the first fire department outside of Los Angles to organize a structured fitness program for all uniformed personnel. Prior to the kickoff, Chief Rule and I traveled to every battalion and conducted briefings, and took questions from members of the department. Right from the horse’s mouth, he tamped down the paranoia that this was not a program to get people fired, but rather to live long and longer, collecting your length-of-service pension. 

The Fitness Coordinator for the program was Lt. Jack Beam (who would later rise to the Fire Chief’s position). Jack had studied the early-retirement data and found everyone was a smoker. “Wouldn’t it make sense to require firefighters not to use tobacco?“ 

Virginia, a tobacco state- well you could imagine the push back from the Tobacco Institute, just 90 miles down I-95. Charley was convinced this was the right thing to do. We met with the City Attorney and he concurred. 

James Califano, the then Secretary of HEW, conducted a press conference at City Hall. The Washington Post covered the event under the headline: Rules’s Rule. Today, no smokers can be found in any of the fire departments in the greater Washington DC area. 

Charley was a non-uniform wearing, (perhaps the only phot of Charley in uniform: see link above) cerebral kind of guy who shunned a lot of traditions. During the discussion and planning phase of the rollout of the new program, he asked me about pipe smoking, I told him that he was fooling himself if he thought that he was reducing his cancer risk. He quit cold turkey. 

Our UoM staff conducted individual fitness assessments on every uniformed member of AFD. Each firefighter was provided a “Fitness Report Card” with bar charts showing their scores for aerobic fitness, muscular strength and endurance, and body composition. We would interpret the data and make recommendations for improvement. Jack Beam was patiently explaining to one firefighter how he could bring some of his sagging scores up to meet the demands of the job. 

When Jack was attempting to garner support, the guy looked at him and said, “That’s easy for you to say, you work out.”

1 comment:

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