Wearing heavy bunker gear. Working in the sweltering heat. Sleep deprivation. Putting one’s life on the line to save others.
It takes a unique combination of strength, determination and will to be a firefighter — and it takes a unique expert to keep those first responders in good shape for their job.
Orange County Fire Rescue Department firefighter/EMT and Winter Park-area resident Jason Wheat recently was recognized for his work as the safety and wellness training facility manager that keeps his peers in great physical condition. On March 19, he received the Florida State Firefighters Association’s Firefighter of the Year award.
HEROES IN TRAINING
From a large hangar-turned-exercise-area known as the “fit pit” at the Orange County Fire Rescue Training Center in Winter Park, Wheat whips new recruits into shape, helps veteran firefighters keep up their strength through personal training and nutrition advice, and brings his injured brothers and sisters back into service with special programs.
Wheat works with new recruits through a 10-week program. He teaches them everything they need to know — from nutrition to proper gear-lifting techniques to prevent injury. Firefighters are always welcome to come back to Wheat for more guidance and advice as well, he said.
“To me, I consider us occupational athletes,” Wheat said. “I tell these kids when they first come in that we’re almost like NFL football players, but our careers don’t last three to five years — they last for 30 years. We have to take care of our bodies even better than professional athletes do, because of the rigorous job and the physical demands that it puts on your body.”
His recent recognition as Firefighter of the Year came as a shock, Wheat said, adding that he’s grateful to be recognized.
“It’s an amazing award,” he said. “When I first got it, I wasn’t expecting it. It took a little while to soak in and you just think about all the thousands of great firefighters in the state of Florida out there. To be named Firefighter of the Year in the state of Florida is a huge deal.”
Lt. Anthony Willis, of the Orange County Fire Rescue Department, said Wheat deserves every bit of that recognition for what he does at the training facility.
“I’m proud of him, just like all of our colleagues are,” Willis said. “What I would say about him personally as a friend is that he’s a special person. He’s more deserving of this than anybody else I would think to make the recommendation for because of his merit. As far as him as a person, he’s definitely a caring and kind person.
“He’s somebody that everybody could look up to — from young kids to other adults, as well,” he said.
Originally from Miami with a family full of police officers, Wheat always had wanted to become a firefighter. Before that calling, Wheat served in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2003. He worked as a combat medic, and performed contract firefighting in Iraq during Desert Storm.
Wheat went on to attend fire school at Florida State Fire College in Ocala. From there he worked as a firefighter in Ocala until 2005, when he decided to come to Orange County.
For several years, Wheat also worked as a personal trainer outside of the fire rescue department — his lifelong passion for fitness and nutrition drove him to earn a degree in sports management prior to that.
Three years ago, Wheat had the chance to bring his two jobs together as the manager of the safety and wellness training facility — a dream come true.
“I got all of that experience and all of that knowledge and I wanted to share it with my fire department to make my fire department better,” Wheat said. “I got the opportunity and I took it. I feel lucky and I feel privileged every day when I drive to work. How many people can say that they get paid and make a living off of two passions that you have that I get to do at the same time?”
Working with firefighters every day to prepare them for the job never ceases to be gratifying, Wheat said.
“We had one guy that had been out for six months with a pretty bad injury, and he came back here and he could barely even walk on the stepper,” Wheat said. “I got him in five weeks to get ready and to be back on shift. Just seeing him being able to go back on shift was an award in itself.
“I don’t do this job for an award,” he said. “I don’t do this job for recognition. I do it because it makes me feel good, and it’s my passion to give back to the community and help the firefighters. Getting that award is just the cherry on top. If I can use this award to further help people out, that’s what I want to do.”