Last winter, Jackie Conn decided she needed to help Maine’s first responders to get fit. Conn, general manager of Weight Watchers in Maine, learned that a friend of her daughter’s had lost her father, a firefighter, to a heart attack.
The Worcester, Mass., man was snowblowing after a blizzard when the heart attack claimed his life. Conn was struck by how much the public depends on first responders in an emergency, she said.
“I just thought that’s so tragic and maybe there’s something that Weight Watchers of Maine could do for those who rescue people in the state of Maine,” she said.
Then in April came the Boston marathon bombings, another sobering reminder of the risks public safety professionals undertake and the demands placed on their minds and bodies.
In a show of support, Weight Watchers of Maine has launched a special program to help firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical responders to get healthy. “Fit to Rescue ME” will provide free Weight Watchers meetings to first responders at all of the franchise’s sites in Maine. The meetings will be offered at no cost until participants reach their personal weight loss goal.
But if individuals miss four consecutive weekly meetings, they’ll have to pay up.
“We’re trying to encourage them not to miss,” Conn said.
The program is a valuable option for firefighters and emergency responders, who have to stay fit to meet the physical demands of their professions, said Scott Lucas, Bangor’s fire chief.
“Emergency responders, both police and fire, in my opinion are professional athletes because of what we’re asked to do at any given moment, with not just our brains but with our bodies,” he said.
First responders face special health challenges, including interruptions in their sleep and eating patterns from performing shift work. New recruits must meet fitness and agility standards, but research indicates that many struggle to maintain a healthy body weight. A 2009 study of candidates for fire and ambulance services in Massachusetts found that more than 75 percent were overweight or obese, a situation with major consequences for public health and safety, researchers said. A higher body mass index — a body fat calculation based on individual weight and height — was associated with significantly higher risk of developing heart problems.
First responders must work a little harder to stay fit, whether it’s maintaining a healthy weight or exercising regularly, said Lucas, a former wrestler who has competed in seven World Police and Fire Games, a biennial athletic event that attracts thousands of police and fire personnel from around the globe.
“I put a big emphasis on our physical fitness,” he said.
The city works to help firefighters stay healthy through a wellness program and fitness facilities at each of Bangor’s three fire stations, Lucas said. Firefighters’ contract with the city also provides monetary incentives for meeting physical fitness standards each year, he said.
The fire department’s special response team, made of up “tactical paramedics” who work with Bangor police, must meet the more rigorous fitness standards of Bangor’s SWAT team, Lucas said.
“Our public safety officials put their lives at risk everyday to protect Maine citizens,” Conn said. “This is our way of saying thanks and giving back to the community.”
The “Fit to Rescue ME” program is open to active duty firefighters, police officers and emergency medical responders/EMTs, including volunteers. Free enrollment will be accepted between May 19 and June 1. For information, call Weight Watchers of Maine at 1-800-651-6000.