From the Indiana University Department of Family Medicine and Bowen Research Center, Public Safety Medical Services, and Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department

In 1996, the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) developed the Joint Labor Management Wellness Fitness Initiative for the fire service in the United States and Canada (“Cooperative Approach to Building a Healthier Fire Service,” Fire Engineering, January 1998, p. 53). The initiative’s ultimate goal was to develop a comprehensive wellness and fitness program to improve firefighters’ quality of life. The initiative developed a task force to evaluate the use of a performance evaluation for incumbent firefighters and candidates applying to the fire service.

After reviewing performance testing-related issues, the task force unanimously agreed to defer the implementation of an incumbent performance evaluation and instead concentrated on developing a candidate physical ability test. A technical committee developed and validated a test measuring a candidate’s physical ability to perform the tasks required of a firefighter, the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT). CPAT includes a three-minute weighted step mill test, hose drag, equipment carry, ladder raise and extension, forcible entry (sledgehammer swing), search, rescue, and ceiling breach and pull.1

In 2000, the Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD) incorporated the complete CPAT into its applicant hiring process. Various types of training aids were made available to best prepare the applicants for the CPAT. Among these were a CPAT preparation guide, general information pertaining to physical fitness, a description of each component of the CPAT, a review of test procedures, and an orientation guide to the CPAT equipment. Each applicant had equal access to all of the materials and training sessions.

Because the CPAT was a new component in the IFD hiring process and the CPAT is a rigorous and physically demanding test, the IFD training staff sought answers to two questions regarding CPAT: (1) Were applicants who were more physically active prior to taking the CPAT more likely to pass? and (2) Were applicants satisfied with the training aids the IFD provided? Researchers at the Indiana Univer-sity Bowen Research Center designed two surveys to answer these questions. The first survey assessed the applicant’s level of physical activity prior to taking the CPAT. The second survey was designed to assess the applicant’s satisfaction with the various components of the training program. Perceived levels of satisfaction with the CPAT included the usefulness, understandability, and fairness of the training aids. The first survey was administered at the time of the written test; the second survey was administered following the applicant’s completion of the CPAT.


The IFD has 723 members and holds at least one hiring process annually. Most of the applications accepted are for employment with the IFD, but a small number of applications are accepted for employment with other local departments during a joint hiring process. Between August 14 and September 1, 2000, the IFD accepted applications for the 72nd IFD recruit class and for a neighboring township department. Appli-cants received a packet of materials describing the application process, including information about the benefits of physical activity and the specific CPAT components.

Applicants viewed a video showing a person completing the components of the CPAT during this first phase of the hiring process. After completing the paperwork, applicants were scheduled to take the written test. Most applicants returned to take the written examination. At the written examination, applicants were asked to voluntarily complete the first survey requesting their self-reported level of physical activity. Before administering the written test, the test proctor described the survey’s purpose, stating that completing the survey was voluntary and that the data would be kept confidential and would not influence employment decisions.

Applicants scoring 80 percent or greater on the written examination were scheduled for a series of interviews. Based on these interviews, selected applicants advanced further in the process and were asked to take the CPAT. In addition to the written materials, the CPAT video, and opportunities to ask questions about the CPAT throughout the hiring process, the selected applicants were allowed up to 40 hours of unscheduled practice time at the IFD’s CPAT facility. The video ran continuously, and at least one of the IFD training staff was available at the CPAT facility for consultation at all times. One practice time was scheduled for each applicant selected to complete the CPAT and to consult individually with IFD training staff.

Following the CPAT, each applicant was asked to complete the second survey, which included the CPAT training satisfaction questions. The directions on the survey stated that completion was voluntary and the data would remain confidential.


The IFD Strategic Planning Committee reviewed and approved the physical activity and satisfaction surveys before they were used. The first survey asked the applicant to identify from a list all of the physical activities that person participated in during a typical week. The Compendium of Physical Activities: Classification of Energy Costs of Human Physical Activities, an appendix in the American College of Sports Medicine Resource Manual, was used to identify the initial activities listed on the surveys.2-3 The applicant was then asked to identify the three activities they participated in most often and to rate the frequency, intensity, and time of participation during the same time period.

Physical activity level classifications included none/low, moderate, and vigorous. The survey classified any activity level below that of moderate or vigorous as none/low. Moderate level activity was any combination of the selected activities the individual reported performing five or more times per week for at least 30 minutes per session. Vigorous level activity involved participation in specific aerobic activities and estimates of the individual’s metabolic expenditure (MET).4

Survey information was entered into an electronic data file and checked for accuracy. This process showed 99 percent data entry accuracy. Data were analyzed using SPSS Version 10.0. Survey data were linked to applicant age, sex, race, codes for identifying individual progress through the applicant process and the CPAT pass or fail information. Pearson’s chi square tests and McNemar’s chi square tests were used to examine differences in the variables. P-values <.05 were considered statistically significant.


There were 1,052 individuals who initially applied to be firefighters in Indianapolis between August 14 and September 1, 2000. The majority of the initial applicants were white (71.9 percent) males (90.8 percent) and most often were between the ages of 25 and 29 years of age (41.2 percent). The initial applicants’ mean age was 27.3 years.

Of the initial applicants, about two-thirds (63.0 percent) returned to take the written test. Overall, one-quarter (24.5 percent) of the initial pool of 1,052 applicants progressed to the point of being invited to take the CPAT. The overall applicant dropout rate appears to be affected by the level of self-reported activity at the point of initial activity. Of those who reported none/low physical activity at the time of the written test, 26.3 percent took the CPAT compared with 32.4 percent of the moderately active applicants and 43.5 percent of the vigorously active applicants.

Of the 663 who returned to take the written test, 438 (66.1 percent) completed the first survey, which was administered before the written examination. About one-fifth (19.4 percent) of the applicants reported that they routinely participated in vigorous activity; 49.3 percent, moderate physical activity; and 31.3 percent reported having low or no routine physical activity at all.

Of the 663 taking the written test, 544 (82.1 percent) scored a passing grade. Of the 544 who passed the written examination, 258 (47.4 percent) were invited to schedule their CPAT appointment. Of the 258 invited to take the CPAT, 206 actually did (79.8 percent). Of the 206 applicants who attempted the CPAT, 179 passed (86.9 percent).


The CPAT pass rates varied by applicant gender, age, race, and the self-reported level of physical activity at the time of the initial application, as presented in Table 1. There were statistically significant differences in the CPAT pass rates by gender. Of the male applicants who took the CPAT, 90 percent completed it successfully, compared with 50 percent of the females. The pass rates were higher among the younger applicants, but the differences were not statistically significant. Slightly more white applicants than black applicants passed (88.4 percent vs. 77.4 percent), but this difference was not statistically significant. Of the applicants who were vigorously active at the time of the written test, more were likely to pass the CPAT (94.6 percent) compared with 88.6 percent of those moderately active and those with low levels of activity (83.3 percent), but again, these differences were not statistically significant.


Assessment of applicant satisfaction with the CPAT training program included an evaluation of usefulness, understandability, and fairness of the training materials (Table 2). In general, the majority of the applicants who took the CPAT felt that the training materials were useful, understandable, and fair. No respondent reported that the training video was “not useful,” “not understandable,” or “not fair.” Six respondents reported that the supplemental information was “not useful,” four reported that it was “not understandable,” and one person stated that the supplemental information was “not fair.” The candidate preparation guide was reported to be “not useful” by three respondents, “not understandable” by one individual, and “not fair” by none of the respondents. All respondents found the practice sessions “useful.”

Overall, there were 15 respondents who responded that a component was “not useful” (9), “not understandable” (5), or “not fair” (1). Of the 15, 13 passed the CPAT. However, an examination of Table 2 reveals that more individuals who passed the CPAT rated the training components as “very useful,” “very understandable,” or “very useful,” compared with those who did not pass the CPAT.


This study illustrates the extent to which individuals drop out of the firefighter application process at various stages. More than one-third of the initial applicants drop out before taking the written test. Part of this attrition may be because of the candidates’ better understanding of the rigorous physical requirements needed to pass the CPAT and test phobia. The written test was not responsible for the elimination of many candidates, since the pass rate was more than 80 percent.

The greatest attrition of applicants occurred at the personal interview, where slightly less than one-half of those interviewed were invited to schedule a CPAT appointment. Most of those invited to take the CPAT took the test (79.8 percent); 86.9 percent passed.

The dropout rate appears to be related to the self-reported physical activity at the time of the written examination, since only one-quarter of those who reported low/none physical activity moved on to the CPAT, compared with one-third of the moderately active participants and two-fifths of the vigorously active participants. This finding may explain why there is no significant difference in the CPAT test pass rate by level of reported physical activity prior to the written test.

Those who reported low/none levels of physical activity at the written test may have increased their physical training prior to taking the CPAT, but this was beyond the scope of this study. The collection of valid and complete information from the applicants completing the CPAT is hampered by the fact that the survey is administered after the test is completed and all candidates know at this time if they have been successful. Individuals who do not pass have little motivation to complete the requested survey.

The pre-CPAT training opportunities were well received by the participants; few reported that the process was “not useful,” “not understandable,” or “unfair.” A larger proportion of those with negative feelings were applicants who passed the CPAT rather than those who failed.

This study was unable to address the impact of increased physical activity effort on the CPAT pass rates once the applicant became aware of the process. It would be of interest to determine if the training aids increased an individual’s level of physical activity prior to CPAT but after their initial contact with the hiring process. In future studies, more emphasis needs to be placed on collecting complete data from the individuals who did not pass the CPAT.

The CPAT preparation program the IFD offered has been well received by the applicants as evidenced by the satisfaction survey results and the relatively high CPAT pass rate. The CPAT requirement, we believe, helps to ensure a higher level of physical fitness and health for those who are hired and become part of the fire service.


  1. The Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness/Fitness Initiative, “Candidate Physical Ability Test.” International Association of Fire Fighters, Washington, D.C., 1999.
  2. American College of Sports Medicine. Resource Manual for Exercise Testing and Prescription, Third Edition, Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins, Philadelphia, 1998; 656-669.
  3. Ainsworth B.E., W.L. Haskell, M.C. Whitt, et al. “Compendium of Activities: an Update of Activity Codes and MET Intensities.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2000; 32(9): S498-S516.
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 1996.

CAROLYN M. MUEGGE is a project director at the Bowen Research Center.

TERRELL W. ZOLLINGER is professor and associate director of the Bowen Research Center.

ROBERT M. SAYWELL JR. is professor and director of research at the Bowen Research Center.

STEVEN M. MOFFATT is president of Public Safety Medical Services.

THOMAS HANIFY is president of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Professional Firefighters Union Local 416.

LOUIS A. DEZELAN is chief of the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department.

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