Firefighter Suits Up To Fight Lung Disease

(March 29, 2010)

san-mateo-daily-journal

March 29, 2010

Greg Collaco was gearing up for his fourth year tackling over 1,000 steps it takes to climb the 52 floors of a San Francisco landmark skyscraper in hopes of bringing awareness to the fight against lung disease.

The San Francisco firefighter from San Bruno ended up taking a different role in Saturday's event, one of leadership. Collaco, 41, decided to take inspiration from a Washington firefighter climb to draw more of those in his field to the event. His success meant someone needed to be on hand to ensure the safety of firefighters tacking the stair challenge in full gear. Collaco had a choice: Remain a climber or keep his colleagues safe. He chose the later.

"In the future, this climb for firefighters is going to grow. It's no doubt it was successful," said Collaco. "Firefighters do not have the opportunity, to climb 52 stories and have an opportunity to climb it with their gear. … I couldn't see why any firefighter wouldn't come and do this for their own personal experience, so you know at one point you started to get tired and can work on it. In a real fire, you can't press a button and say I need air or water. You need to pace yourself and self regulate."

Collaco's first opportunity to tackle 52 stories came four years ago with Climb California, an American Lung Cancer Association event now called the Annual Fight for Air Climb. The fundraising event takes climbers up a 780-foot skyscraper at 555 California St. in downtown San Francisco. Funds raised help the organization fight lung disease, the third leading cause of death, according to the organization's Web site. Lung disease is particularly prevalent in California.

Ninety percent of Californians live in areas with unhealthy air, contributing to breathing problems for the nearly five million of our state's citizens afflicted with asthma, including nearly one million children.

"What I've found is that it's not just about fighting fires and saving lives, there's things I've come to enjoy doing, fundraising and working on health and fitness programs for my coworkers," Collaco explained.

As a result he volunteers as a peer fitness trainer for his colleagues and works with the First Responders Support Network, a nonprofit pairing those in emergency services with mental health clinicians and chaplains to create a supportive environment for those who deal with particularly stressful situations.

Collaco took advantage of the climb as it kept him physically fit while supporting a good cause. His experience led to an invite to other fire departments. Collaco noticed a firefighter donning a helmet at last year's climb. He enjoyed the idea and was challenged to go up in full gear. Researching the idea, Collaco found a team in Washington that has had an all-firefighter climb for 18 years. Some of the firefighters headed to California this weekend to take part in the first climb of its kind here. With about 30 firefighters taking the full-gear challenge, someone needed to ensure participants were safe.

Collaco was faced with a decision: Climb or take charge.

About 48 hours before everything was set to begin, Collaco took charge.

Senior Development Manager Karen Stone described Collaco has being very dedicated, a volunteer who just wants to help.

Thankfully, with the help of others, the emergency plan was well thought out and not really needed as firefighters took on the challenge without injury.

And, after the event, Collaco was able to borrow the gear of a fellow firefighter and use volunteers to take on the stair challenge as well.

"I climbed the stairs myself and it was not easy," he said.

Collaco traditionally averaged about 13 minutes for the climb. Saturday his time grew to 31 minutes and 10 seconds since the gear added a unique challenge requiring Collaco to take breaks. A volunteer followed Collaco up the stairs, encouraging Collaco along the way.

Collaco sees the event as the first of many, which will hopefully only grow to give opportunities for all firefighters to learn from such a challenge.

Until next year, Collaco will keep up his work while making time for his wife, Bridget and their three young children.  

For more information about the American Lung Association visit www.californialung.org.