SEBRING Firefighters should be fit, Sebring’s chief and Highlands County’s training officer agreed, but measuring body mass index isn’t the way to ascertain that.
While reworking Florida’s fire codes with SB 1410, the House considered setting a maximum BMI of 25 for firefighters.
“It's good for public safety," argued Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, who offered an amendment that ultimately failed.
Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, said BMI can be misleading, particularly for muscular people. Peters said the measurement was subjective.
Sebring Fire Chief Brad Batz agreed. “It is subjective. A new kid just hired on, and he maybe weighs 130 pounds soaking wet.”
The Sebring recruit passed a doctor’s examination and can do anything required of a firefighter, which includes dragging a fire hose 150 feet while wearing oxygen tanks and 50 pounds of bunker gear.
“You have to look at the person,” Batz said. “Muscle weighs more than fat, so BMI may show he’s overweight, but he may not be.”
Rep. Mike Clelland, R-Maitland, was a firefighter for many years, even though his own BMI is probably over 26. The measure might unfairly affect desk-bound firefighters, including chiefs, he argued in Tuesday’s committee hearing.
"Firefighters need to be fit," Adkins retorted. "Stamina and cardiovascular fitness are a must to be able to perform this tough job."
Atkins is confusing BMI with fitness, Batz said. “It’s hard to tell if someone is fit or not. A bigger guy can be incredibly cardio-fit.”
BMI is a meaningful measurement for most men and women, but it’s limited, says the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute website: “It may overestimate body fat in athletes and others who have a muscular build, (and) it may underestimate body fat in older persons and others who have lost muscle.
“Any time you’re overweight, your body is going to consume more oxygen, more than someone in good physical shape,” said Charles Andrews, who trains volunteers for Highlands County. “But you’ll have the same issues if you hit the gym and really bulk up.
“In bunker gear, you’re going to have problems,” Andrews said. “Your body doesn’t breathe, and it gets overheated easily. Firefighters have a high rate of heat exhaustion. You’re wrapping yourself in a suit designed to keep heat out, and you’re swinging an axe or pulling a hose or handling a nozzle.”
Florida already has fitness standards that must be in order to become a firefighter, Andrews and Batz said.
Like Rep. Clelland, Andrews describes himself as “a tall, wide guy. I got down to 220 pounds three years ago, and I had a 34-inch waist. But I’d have to be down to 190 pounds for my BMI to be under 25.”
The state regulates firefighter fitness standards, Batz said. “Absolutely. It’s a good thing. It’s safer for everybody.”
“The Navy had a very strict policy for its Physical Readiness Test,” said Brett Dowden, a former Highlands County deputy. “A person could excel in all the physical areas – situps, pushups, 1.5 mile run, 500-yard swim – and still fail due to being even slightly overweight.
“The bottom line for me is simply this,” said Dowden. “Either you can do the job or you cannot.”
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report