AUSTIN EDITION New wellness program planned for firefighters
By Nikki Merfeld
Austin Fire Chief Dan Wilson and shift commanders are trying to get firefighters to volunteer to take care of themselves.
The department and Austin Medical Center plan to offer a wellness program to full- and part-time employees. It's designed to encourage staffers to make wise choices without mandating participation.
"We're trying to use sugar instead of vinegar," Wilson said.
The program was discussed at Tuesday's meeting of the fire committee, which recommended approval by the city council. Committee member Wayne Goodnature said he'd consider making participation a requirement.
However, Human Resources Director Tricia Weichmann said that cannot legally be done despite a requirement that firefighters pass an agility test before being hired.
Shift commander Jim Mattice said he believes such a requirement could be counterproductive.
"If you're forced to do something, you're not going to participate vs. if you see other people doing it and you can go along on a voluntary basis," he said.
"We think we can get a lot of people to start changing their lifestyles and that's what we want to do," added shift commander Ted Gilbertson.
For those who sign up, an initial clinic visit would include a health screening, physical exam, hepatitis B test and hepatitis booster. The $425 per person fee would be paid through the program even though full-time firefighters could charge it to their insurance.
From that, a customized fitness program would be developed.
Wilson said he's been working with the clinic's occupational health coordinator, Nancy Bawek.
"Normally, these tests would be twice what we're going to pay for them," he said.
Funding for the fitness program will come from a Public Employees Retirement Association fund that can only be used to benefit the fire department, Wilson said.
The department was denied a federal grant for the program and is using the required 10 percent of local funding to continue with as much of the program as that $14,000 will allow, he said.
"What we feel is it's preventive maintenance on the humans in our department. We do it on vehicles," said shift commander Don Lenz.
"We've had a lot of positive feedback. We've had some of our part-timers come in already and use some of our physical fitness equipment."