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East Liberty firefighters begin weight-loss challenge

When Keith Ott stepped on the scale Tuesday in the Engine 8 fire station in East Liberty, the taunting began.

"You're going down, big boy," one fellow firefighter yelled.

"Does the scale have numbers that high?" another yelled.

The teasing was in good fun, as Ott and 17 co-workers embarked on a four-month weight-loss odyssey they're calling the "Biggest Loser Challenge."

"Most line-of-duty deaths for firefighters are cardiac related," said Pittsburgh fire Chief Darryl Jones. "Being physically fit benefits not only the firefighter but is important for public safety."

Firefighter Danny Doyle, who handles chef duties for the "A Line" crew of eight firefighters at the station, said that toward the end of last year, much of the talk around the firehouse was about losing weight.

So Doyle proposed a challenge: Each participant would pay $40 for a chance to lose the highest percentage of body fat by May 12. Gold's Gym in Market Square offered a free six-month membership to the winner, who will get the money.

Jim Skirboll, a Gold's Gym trainer, recorded each firefighter's height, weight and body-fat percentage. Ott had the highest -- 33.1. An athlete's percentage typically is about 12, Skirboll said.

"Whether it's a New Year's resolution or whatever the motivation is, it's important to stay in shape," Skirboll said.

Capt. James Petruzzi, a 21-year veteran of the fire bureau, works out six days a week and frequents the station's gym, which has treadmills, an elliptical machine and weights. He has another name for the men he oversees on the "A Line."

"I call them the 'O Line' because they're pretty round," joked Petruzzi, who is starting the challenge with a body-fat percentage of 22.

The firefighter with the lowest percentage was Rich Boyle of the "B Line" crew, with 13 percent.

Lt. Joe Magliocci, 49, was part of a firefighters' relay team in last year's Pittsburgh Marathon and wants to run a relay leg again, followed by the half-marathon.

"I would already be training for that, but I'm using this challenge as an extra push to get myself focused on getting my body fat to where I need to be," said Magliocci, whose body fat measured 22.5 percent. "I'm not in as good of shape as I used to be or as good as I should be for this job. The more I'm in shape, the better chance I have of avoiding injury."

According to a March 2009 study published in the journal Obesity, researchers reviewed the medical exams of firefighter and ambulance recruits from two Massachusetts clinics between October 2004 and June 2007. Among 370 recruits studied, 22 percent were of normal weight, 43.8 percent were overweight and 33 percent were obese.

Doyle acknowledged that as the house cook, he could skew the results of the Engine 8 challenge by "cooking everything with cheese and bacon while I eat salads."

But yesterday, he whipped up a healthier alternative.

"It's turkey chili today, boys," he announced. "Things are changing around here."

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