Burning calories: Amarillo firefighter invents workout machine to prevent heart deficiencies

Evelyn Jenkins carefully attached a sticker bearing her late husband Wayne’s name to the Canyon Fire Department’s new workout machine. As she noted, one sloppy maneuver would be a permanent mistake.

 

Wayne Jenkins died in March from congenital heart failure at the age of 74, six months after fellow CFD volunteer and fly fishing buddy Bill Tirey — also listed on the stickers — passed away.

In lieu of flowers, Tirey’s son Preston and Jenkins asked for donations to CFD. Little did they know the department would use the money to buy Amarillo Fire Department firefighter Randy Johnson’s new invention — a seven-part exercise station called the FireFit, which is designed to simulate battling a blaze.

The National Fire Protection Association attributed 40 of last year’s 68 U.S. firefighter deaths to overexertion in a study published earlier this month. Heart troubles can manifest years after traumatic events, as was the case with Wayne Jenkins.

“He dedicated his life to the fire department,” Evelyn Jenkins said. “It was more than volunteering for him. It was about the friendship and community service … he’d be so excited to know (the money) was being used for this.”

The FireFit’s inspiration came from annual visits to the International Association of Fire Fighters’ memorial in Colorado Springs, Colo., Johnson said, as well as the deaths of seemingly herculean recruits like former Houston cadet and Crossfit athlete Steven Whitfield.

FireFits are designed for people of Whitfield’s athletic capability — not the weekend warriors among us. Often donning full gear or a weighted vest, firefighters start with three minutes and 20 seconds on the stairclimber, followed by dragging the 300-pound machine 50 feet with a section of a fire hose.

The next exercise is walking the 50 feet and back holding two 30-pound kettlebells meant to simulate a chainsaw before retracing the route with a 45-pound ladder. The firefighter then removes the FireFit’s sledgehammer and smacks the machine’s strike pad 20 times, pretending to break down a door. Next comes sticking arms through the machine’s loops and dragging it back to the starting point before pulling a hooked pole up and down 20 times to simulate tearing down a ceiling.

Firefighter applicants must pass near-identical exercises in the Candidate Physical Ability Test, commonly referred to as the CPAT, before becoming cadets. Prospective cadets must complete the CPAT in 10 minutes, 20 seconds while wearing a 50-pound vest, plus a 25-pound hose bundle for the stair-climbing portion.

Conflict of interest laws prohibit AFD from purchasing an employee’s product with taxpayer money, but Station 12 firefighters used the FireFit prototype for several months in the machine’s infancy. Firefighter Dory Mogelinski said he would run through the exercises three times without rest twice per day, stretching the dragging distance out to 75 and 100 feet.

“For what we have in the stations to work out with, that machine simulates what we do (in the field) closer than anything else,” Mogelinski said. “I could tell my cardio was much better. It didn’t take long to notice a difference.”

Completing a 10-minute FireFit workout at least three to four times per week should considerably strengthen a firefighter’s heart, said Amarillo cardiologist Dr. Suresh Neelagaru, though he declined to say whether it would pay greater dividends than a traditional workout.

Johnson claims he trimmed seven pounds and 4 percent body fat by using the FireFit 15 times over a six-week trial. He says he also dropped his resting heart rate from 80 to 60 beats per minute and his working heart rate from 180 to 160, and cut his recovery time from 14 minutes to four.

Yet all the exercise in the world can only provide minimal protection against external stressors, Neelagaru said. Repeated exposure to blistering heat and smoke-filled rooms places firefighters at an elevated risk of heart failure even after leaving the scene.

“Smoke inhalation is a catastrophic event. It’s the closest you can get to drowning without water, and you can imagine what kind of stress that puts on people’s hearts,” Neelagaru said. “You can take extremely fit people and make them sick in a matter of weeks when their environment goes awry.”

Randall County Fire Department bought the first commercial FireFit in September, and Canyon Fire Department ordered its machine May 10.

Sales representatives in Vernon and Canyon Lake recently began trying to tap into the Dallas and Austin markets, but with each machine taking at least two weeks to complete and selling for $2,750, no progress has been made.

Johnson isn’t worried about supplementing his AFD income. He created the FireFit for a more wholesome purpose, he said.

“If there’s one guy that might not have gone home to his family, but he did because he used my machine, this whole effort (will be) worth it to me,” he said.

“If it can be a tool to reduce deaths from overexertion in the line of duty, I think I did my job.”

The FireFit workout

  • Step up and down (3 minutes, 20 seconds)
  • Drag the 300-pound machine via an attached rope (50 feet)
  • Walk holding two 30-pound kettlebells in each hand (100 feet)
  • Walk hauling a 45-pound ladder overhead (100 feet)
  • Hit the strike pad with a sledgehammer (20 reps)
  • Drag the machine backward via forearm loops (50 feet)
  • Pulling hooked pole up and down (20 reps)

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