Anaheim firefighters revamp workouts with life-changing results

By Elysse James

For an hour a day, they go hardcore.

With the music on, the doors open, and plenty of water nearby, Anaheim Fire & Rescue employees are jumping, squatting, and hip hinging their way to good health.

Firefighter Sean Mazza lifts 135 pounds during a workout at Anaheim Fire & Rescue Station 3.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Anaheim Fire & Rescue firefighters and paramedics from the department’s Wellness Committee are leading the charge, designing daily workouts that prepare them for the physical and mental stresses of the job, and sharing their ideas across the stations.

Eleven Anaheim Fire & Rescue employees – including firefighter/paramedics Calvin Bui and Sean Mazza of Station 3, and Emmanuel Ponce de Leon of Station 9 – recently attended a clinic designed by the nonprofit National Association of Sports Commissions for tactical athletes to learn how to best prepare for on-the-job movements.

“The demands and the rigors of our jobs require for us to be in good cardiovascular (health) as well as have good muscular endurance,” Mazza said, adding that they sometimes must transition from sleeping to working within seconds. “Being in good cardiovascular health helps combat the No. 1 killer of firefighters, which is cardiovascular events. So, staying in good shape allows us to meet the demands and requirements of the job and then also allows for us to perform better.”

Anaheim Fire & Rescue’s Elsa Covarrubias, left, is shown stretching exercises by Firefighter Calvin Bui at Station 3.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Following the class, the firefighters began adding strength, conditioning, flexibility, and cardiovascular exercise to their routines, and incorporating more recovery time.

“Doing this workout has definitely made me more fit, and healthier,” said Fire Captain George Rangel, who gained strength working out at the station following a back injury.

Recently, a FEMA grant matched with city funds allowed Anaheim Fire & Rescue to upgrade station gyms with new rowers, stair steppers, squat racks, stationary bikes, and more for use during the – often interrupted – allotted daily hour of exercise.

Before the new equipment arrived, some stations were outfitted with only the equipment that firefighters themselves donated to their station.

“We’ll be working out full blast and we’ll get a call,” Bui said. “You always have to be ready to go and then make it back and we’re able to continue the workout… That’s why our workouts have to be quick and efficient.”

Anaheim Fire & Rescue Firefighter Mike Houghton warms up with just a barbell bar at the start of a workout at Station 3.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

And everyone can participate. At least one person at every station can scale the movements so those with injuries and other limitations can safely build strength and mobility.

“Everybody’s excited about the new equipment,” Ponce de Leon said. “A lot of the guys are getting together and doing group workouts. That’s becoming more of the normal now, and it’s a positive thing for everyone.”

A warmup comes first, with 5 to 10 minutes of stretching and cardio to raise heart rates. Next is a 30- to 40-minute workout that varies from day to day so they gain strength, power, flexibility, and endurance. And finally, a 10-minute cooldown stretches and mobilizes the muscles.

Anaheim Fire & Rescue Firefighter Calvin Bui does chin-ups during a five-round timed rotation workout.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“All these different types of workouts are going to help us in our job, which is firefighting,” Bui said. “Being able to be fit in a variety of different ways is going to help us achieve that goal of providing to the citizens.”

Firefighters are often lifting heavy patients or victims, directing firehoses, climbing ladders, crawling through smoky buildings, and more, and must be able to do it all while wearing 50 or 60 pounds in gear.

“Having investment and having wellness to be a No. 1 priority is great not only for the fire department, but for the city,” Ponce de Leon said.