A Lexington firefighter briefly traded the cracks and pops of working house fires for the shutters and flashes of cameras recently at a cover shoot for Men's Health magazine.
Tim Boniface, a four-year veteran of the fire department, said he didn't expect to land on the front of the Men's Health November issue as the "Men's Health Ultimate Guy" or to be acting as a champion for firefighter health.
A friend nominated him, and neither of them heard anything for about five months.
Then one day, while Boniface, 36, was sitting on his back porch, he got a call saying he was one of 20 Ultimate Guy finalists.
"I thought it was a prank, so I hung up," he said.
The guys at the fire department often go to great lengths to prank one another, he said.
He got another call.
"I was just thinking, 'These jokers,'" Boniface said.
Finally, a representative from the magazine sent him an email with official Men's Health letterhead.
"I just said, 'I'm so sorry; you just don't know these guys,'" Boniface said.
Now he will be representing Men's Health for a year, a role he hopes will help him promote health and wellness for firefighters around the country.
9/11 changed everything
Boniface had wanted to be a firefighter since a field trip to a fire station when he was 6 years old, but it didn't happen right away.
He fell easily into banking and finance right out of high school, he said. He continued to get promotions and pay raises as he worked in New York City.
He had just moved to the Washington, D.C., area before Sept. 11, 2001, and was working in a bank across from the Pentagon, he said.
Two of his friends from New York worked in the towers of the World Trade Center, he said. Both died in the attacks on Sept. 11. The images of firefighters going into the towers are what he remembers most from that day, Boniface said.
"They probably knew they were marching to their death going up to those towers," he said. "You learn to read fires and read structures, and that was a no-win situation; a lot of them know that."
That's when he decided to try to become a firefighter.
"That self-sacrifice, that is what humanity is, helping people out," Boniface said. "And I was just doing my own thing, I needed to get back to true humanity."
The 'ultimate' guys
Boniface said he has read Men's Health magazine since he was 14.
He said he was humbled to meet the four other finalists in the Ultimate Guy competition at the magazine's Manhattan office in August.
They included a transgender man, an Olympic wrestler-turned-SWAT police officer, an Army veteran who overcame homelessness and a suicide attempt, and a math teacher who works to help at-risk children.
Boniface didn't expect to win.
"I about fell out of my seat," he said.
Boniface is Men's Health's second Ultimate Guy. The first was Noah Galloway, an Army veteran who continued to pursue extreme fitness after losing an arm and a leg in Iraq.
Galloway also changed his career path after 9/11. He dropped out of the University of Alabama to join the Army.
After winning the Men's Health competition, Galloway received endorsement deals and was a finalist on ABC's Dancing With the Stars.
Boniface knew he wanted Lexington to be his home, but it was harder to get into the fire department than he expected.
He had to apply several times. He was competing against volunteer firefighters with years of experience and recent college graduates who studied firefighting.
Four years ago, he was hired with 19 others from among 1,200 applicants.
The job, he learned, is nothing like in the movies.
"My first fire, the first true fire you're in, is like organized chaos," Boniface said. "We have procedures and we have policies. But sometimes it just goes crazy."
He said firefighters have about 20 minutes, at most, to track down a fire before a building burns down, and that's the "hardest 20 minutes of work in your life."
A health-taxing job
The cause that Boniface championed as he moved through the Ultimate Guy contest was firefighter health and fitness.
The U.S. Fire Administration, which is part of FEMA, released a study in 2013 that said the leading cause of death among firefighters on the job was cardiac arrest or other cardiac-related problems, including strokes.
"If you don't take care of your health, if you don't train, if you don't stay physically fit, what can happen is it could be year 17 or 18 (on the job) and you go on this really intense fire, and some guys aren't making it out," Boniface said.
On most fire departments, firefighters work 24 hours and are off 48 hours. But those 24 work hours are often sleepless, Boniface said.
The stop-and-go pace of firefighting can be difficult on the heart, he said.
"You go from zero to 100 in seconds," he said. "You've got 75 pounds of gear, you're going into this super-heated environment dragging this hose, which is super heavy."
Jon Turner was Boniface's acting officer on the ambulance for 21/2 years and now works on the engine at the same station.
"Tim being as physically active as he is has gotten me more into physical fitness and gotten me in shape," Turner said. "He's really strict about his diet and he's helped me eat a whole lot healthier."
Because Boniface is on the ambulance, which is constantly making runs, he doesn't get to cook for others at the station.
But that doesn't mean he hasn't made an impact, Turner said. Whoever cooks now uses healthier fats and leaner meats.
Boniface said Lexington's fire department is "strides ahead" of a lot of the country.
Each day at the academy, trainees have to do 30 to 40 minutes of intense workouts, he said.
After a year on the job, firefighters have to be retested for fitness, Boniface said. If they don't meet a certain standard, they can't stay with the department.
After that, it's up to the firefighters to maintain their health, he said.
The fire department is working to establish a program that would help firefighters stay fit and healthy beyond their probationary year, Assistant Chief Chris Sweat said.
Officials also hope to provide more fitness equipment at each of the 23 fire stations, Sweat said.
During the past few years the city has provided a yearly budget of $30,000 to buy and maintain equipment for the stations, he said.
Boniface hopes to continue to champion health and fitness for current and future firefighters. "Persevere at it, because it took me a lot of time, but if it's your passion, keep going for it and eventually you'll get in," he said. "Then stay fit and healthy. That'll help you throughout your whole career."