Fire chiefs, like any other administrators in charge of large organizations, must keep their eyes on the bottom line. But startling new statistics suggest that the financial bottom line isn`t the only “bottom” line we should be watching. Labeling unhealthy weight “a multibillion dollar drain on the U.S. economy,” Dr. C. Everett Koop, former U.S. Surgeon General, reported that the calculations of medical researchers put the cost of obesity at more than $100 billion annually. In addition, researchers calculated that the workdays lost to weight-related health problems amount to 52.6 million per year.

In December 1994, the C. Everett Koop Foundation issued a strong national wake-up call: “SHAPE UP, AMERICA!”1 The City of Gainesville, Florida, heard that wake-up call and made a call of its own–directly to Koop, inviting him to visit its employees, especially its firefighters, and review its three-year-old health and fitness program, LifeQuest. The resulting visit helped form a mutual-admiration society, earned high marks for the City of Gainesville, and provided Koop with a bird`s eye view of a fire station from a tower ladder.

Fine-tuning firefighters has been a long-term mission for the City of Gainesville. LifeQuest was the brainchild of Director of Risk Management Sam Evins, who analyzed city insurance expenditures and noticed an alarming trend: Not only were the costs rising exponentially, but more than two-thirds of the cases and dollars spent were possibly related to lifestyle–and might be preventable. The City of Gainesville Commission shared Evins` concern. Evins then launched LifeQuest, a health and fitness program aimed at helping employees get control of their diets and exercise programs. Within one year, the program proved successful. Costs declined. Absenteeism dropped. And, more important, employees were healthier and happier. So, how did they begin?


I`m told that LifeQuest began at the dinner table, literally. The City of Gainesville hired Kathryn Parker,2 a registered dietitian, to analyze and correct the firefighters` eating habits. It was easy to do because the firefighters were a “captive audience,” good cooks, and highly motivated by the lure of fitness. In the first two months of Parker`s program, the firefighters lost a collective 2,000 pounds…and no one really thought they were fat to begin with. First, Parker convinced the firefighters they were athletes and deserved the same professional, aggressive nutritional intervention she would afford to any elite athlete. Calling on her experience with the University of Florida Athletic Department, the United States Olympic Women`s Track and Field athletes, and the 100 New York City marathon runners she advises every year, Parker evaluated each firefighter and designed a personal program. The fire station kitchen became “the training table.” Weight plummeted as eating habits improved dramatically with small, simple changes: reducing fat and balancing the nutritional components. The only seemingly disgruntled people were Red Cross volunteers, who were accustomed to answering fire alarms with coffee and donuts for the wet, weary firefighters. After Parker`s influence, the firefighters preferred raw vegetables. And “celery and carrots are far more difficult to find and prepare at 3:00 in the morning,” good-natured Red Cross volunteer Shawn Snow says with a laugh.

Good diet paid off. Lighter and feeling better, the firefighters were able to engage in physical activity more aggressively and effectively, getting better results from their workout programs, too. “Lean and mean,” the Gainesville firefighters have a nationally ranked combat team with a national champion, Cindy Divens, among them.


Like LifeQuest, C. Everett Koop`s Shape Up, America! places healthful weight and physical activity high on the agenda. Says Koop, “U.S. obesity rates, already among the highest in the world, are continuing to go up–from 25 percent of American adults in 1980 to 34 percent today. And, since being overweight is directly linked to a number of disabling and life-threatening diseases–diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, some forms of cancer, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, and gout–it is likely the disease rates related to obesity will also continue to rise. After smoking, which causes an estimated 500,000 deaths annually, obesity-related conditions are the second leading cause of death in the U.S., resulting in about 300,000 lives lost each year.” Sound like fire statistics, don`t they?

For firefighters who devote their careers to saving lives, it is logical we start with ourselves first. When a firefighter is truly healthy and physically fit, he or she brings maximum performance to the job for the customers and for colleagues–all of whom depend on best effort and deserve it. But, beyond job performance, being healthy and fit means that LIFE is better. n


1. Additional information is available from Dr. C. Everett Koop Foundation Health Letter, P.O. Box 1200, Southport, CT 06490; Ellen Latham, Shape Up, America!, (212) 944-5101.

2. Kathryn A. Parker, R.D., L.D., can be reached at the City of Gainesville, P.O. Box 490, Gainesville, FL 32602; (904) 334-2257.

MICHAEL F. STALEY, a former firefighter and EMT, is a motivational speaker and heads Port Orange, Florida-based Golden Hour Motivational Resources, through which he also provides consulting and speaking services.

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