Dan Stamm

Working Out Together Builds Muscles, Bonds for Pennsylvania Firefighters

The doors are open at the North Strabane Township fire station on a warm, breezy late fall afternoon. It's a perfect day to sit back and enjoy.

But there is no enjoyment here, only the sounds of grunts and more than a few groans mixed in with some good-natured ribbing.

Three days a week, firefighters, both professional and volunteer, along with some spouses, significant others and even emergency medical personnel, gather to work out.

Rick Opfermann, who joined as a volunteer in the department three years ago, broached the idea about starting an exercise program with fire Chief Mark Grimm. For Opfermann, who has been a personal trainer for the last five years, his whole life has revolved around fitness.

"We all have our own skill sets and talents, so we all give back in different ways," said Opfermann, who grew up in Peters Township but moved to North Strabane in 1992. "Our main goal is to serve the community, whether it is the people who live or work here or are just traveling through. We want to do what we can to ensure the quality of service they deserve and demand."

When Opfermann and fellow firefighter Jeff Platt started the program earlier this year, they were the only two participants. But the numbers grew to include about a dozen firefighters, some of their wives and emergency medical personnel from Canonsburg Ambulance. The workouts last from 40 minutes to an hour.

Opfermann said the routines focus on the cardiovascular and strength training needed by firefighters to perform their tasks at the scene of an emergency.

"It is more high-intensity and endurance," he added. "The workouts encompass all forms of fitness."

"There are sometimes reps," Opfermann said. "Everyone works at their own fitness level. It can be tailored to anyone." [[405044415, C]]

Opfermann explained that it is a mixed-bag workout, including weighted squats and different timed exercises. Participants use basic equipment like weighted plates or medicine balls.

"We keep it simple, so they can do it at home," he added.

Grimm, who is one of the regulars, said the gear the firefighters carry weighs about 60 to 65 pounds.

"Cardiovascular problems are the No. 1 killer for firefighters," Grimm said. "This workout program is a great morale booster, and they have fun doing it."

Opfermann said it brings out a spark of friendly competition among the participants.

"With that sense of competition, they feed off each other," he added. "And it is developing a strong bond among them, building that bond without risking lives."

Firefighter Joe Wiszczor and his wife, Amy, both decided at the beginning of this year that it would be a good idea to do something different, so they joined the workout group.

Joe Wiszczor, who will mark 30 years in the department in 2017, said he has seen a difference since working out several times a week.

"I found I have more strength, more energy," he said.

While not a firefighter, Amy Wiszczor has been a social member with the department for about 10 of their 18 years of marriage.

"My husband wanted me to go with him" she said. "I don't know about losing weight, but I do have more energy. And maybe my things fit a little better."

"It is helping me out, and it is fun," she added. "It is a good group of people. And it is a way to relieve stress."

Every year, active members of the department are required to take agility tests, Grimm said. Their time is tracked as they perform different functions often needed at a fire scene, from lifting a ladder, carrying a fan up and down stairs, pulling fire hose and climbing through a window. Since the training has started, he has seen improvements. Wiszczor is one of those firefighters.

"Last year, I did it in about six minutes, so I asked Rick if he could help me lower my time," said the 47-year-old. "When I did the test earlier this year, I did it in about four minutes."

While a non-firefighting injury suffered about a decade ago keeps him from going into working building fires, Wiszczor said there are enough things he can do outside, like driving the truck and keeping the water flowing at the scene.

The group not only works out together, but often runs in 5K or 10K races. Most recently, they ran in the Mario Lemieux Foundation 6.6K Family Fun Run and Walk. They also plan on running in next year's Pittsburgh Marathon, with some planning to do the full marathon, others doing the half-marathon and the rest taking part in the relay.

Platt is happy to see the program come to fruition.

"I am happy to see the group get bigger and consistently see the same ones," he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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