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    A lifesaving cuisine

    Firefighters put their lives on the line to save others. But their unhealthy dietary habits may be putting them in peril.

    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
    Largo firefighter/EMT Doug Hiatt, left, and firefighter/paramedic Otto Sandleben settle in with their low-fat lunch at Station 41.

    By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 17, 2002


    They love hearty meals, have trouble finding time to exercise and perform one of the most stressful jobs on the planet.

    And it's killing them.

    Heart attacks were the leading cause of death for on-duty firefighters in 2000. Of the 102 deaths that year, 40 of them, or 39 percent, were attributed to cardiac arrest, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

    "If you're in your home and there's a fire, and the firefighter coming to rescue you has a heart attack, that doesn't do you much good," said Jeff Bullock, president of the Largo Professional Firefighters Association Local 2427.

    Stress is a major factor. Firefighters must respond to fire alarms, awake from a deep sleep and work at the height of alertness in less than a minute.

    This is what can happen inside the body: "The heart beats hard. There's an adrenaline rush," said Anne Schreiner, a registered dietitian at Morton Plant Hospital. "The arteries contract. The heart slows down. The arteries stay tightly closed, not enough blood flows to the heart, which leads to a heart attack."

    For years, local fire departments have encouraged firefighters to get more exercise. The six Clearwater fire stations operating in 1997 have had exercise equipment since then, including free weights and a stair climber at a total cost of $18,000.

    "We don't force them to do it, but we give them ample opportunity to use the exercise equipment during their work schedule," said Assistant Clearwater Fire Chief Charlie Flowers.

    In Dunedin, firefighters and all city employees may participate in a wellness program, where they undergo a comprehensive screening of their health, said Lisa Beck, a human resources representative for the city.

    But Largo firefighters are taking the matter one step further, visiting a registered dietitian at Morton Plant Hospital, participating in talks with exercise physiologists and inviting a dietitian into their kitchens to show them how to shop for, prepare and eat healthy meals.

    The wellness program is part of Largo firefighters' contracts and will cost the city about $9,600 this year. The effects, though, may last for years.

    "As far as the department is concerned, it lowers workers compensation, which includes surgery, rehabilitation and lost time. We need all of our people here all of the time," said district Chief Pat McGinley.

    At Station 41 last week, Largo firefighters helped prepare low-fat lasagna, a garden salad and fresh-fruit ice with guidance from Schreiner.

    She encouraged them to use unsaturated fat for frying, such as olive, peanut or canola oil, and to use margarine that has liquid oil as its first ingredient. Also, they need to stay away from salt and instead use parsley, oregano, basil, salsa, roasted peppers or rosemary to season their food.

    On Valentines Day, the firefighters were in constant motion as they took cues from Schreiner. They browned ground round, pureed fruit, chopped squash and carrots and snapped stems off spinach leaves.

    Almost immediately, the firefighters showed signs of skepticism.

    For starters, they say they already eat well and exercise plenty.

    It's the job, not their eating habits, that is the real reason for concern, firefighters say. They respond to vehicle crashes, fires and hazardous materials calls 24 hours a day.

    "Normal people don't see what we see every day," said John Leapley, a firefighter and emergency medical technician.

    When it comes to their food, they want it to taste good. Trouble is, food that tastes good isn't always good for them.

    The meal they prepared called for salt-free tomatoes, low sodium sauce and skim mozzarella and ricotta cheeses.

    The recipe was light in other ways as well. There was a thin layer of meat sauce followed by an even thinner layer of noodles. Then they put spoonfuls of cheese on sections of the lasagna.

    "She's way off on the cheese," complained Otto Sandleben, a firefighter paramedic.

    Firefighters prefer quick, easy meals. They also tend to eat those meals very quickly, mostly because 40 percent of their meals are interrupted by a call.

    "If you make a good meal, sometimes you don't get the chance to eat it," said Lt. Brian Brady. "So what you angle for is quick food."

    The lasagna, garden salad and fruit ice took about an hour to prepare. But the proof, it seemed, was illustrated by the mostly clean plates.

    "It's good," said Don Richter, a firefighter paramedic at station 40 in Largo. "I'm pleasantly surprised because when we were making it, it looked a little light on ingredients."

    Sandleben, the firefighter who complained about the cheese, only gave the meal an "all right." Others echoed those sentiments.

    No such comments were heard the day before when a different shift at Station 41 ate hot dogs, chili, cheese, Tater Tots, cole slaw and brownies for lunch. Most of the 48 hot dogs and mounds of Tater Tots were gone in a matter of minutes.

    Schreiner said she was "disappointed" the firefighters didn't at least choose french fries for the meal because they have less sodium than Tater Tots. She noted that the hot dog meal contained many more calories and more fat and sodium than the low-fat lasagna.

    But it "takes a lot of time to change habits," she said, "and it takes a lot of reinforcement."

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