Conditioning New Recruits: The Physical Readiness Program

BY STEVE AUFEROTH

The physical training of fire recruits is important to the long-term success of the individual recruit and the department as a whole. Most departments conduct an entry-level physical assessment to determine if the candidate has the minimum abilities to perform the duties of firefighter. The Eugene (OR) Fire & EMS Department uses the Candidate Physical Abilities Test (CPAT), designed and validated by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), as an entry-level assessment tool. Eugene also recognizes the necessity of additional physical fitness training to ready the fire recruits for the rigors of active firefighting.

The long-term health and fitness of every firefighter depend on many factors, such as family and personal health history, exposure to products of combustion and other toxins, job-related injuries, medical exposures (e.g., blood/body fluids, hepatitis B and C, bacteria, tuberculosis, and H1N1), and personal habits/lifestyle choices in and outside the firehouse.

In 2000, Eugene opened a $20 million facility that houses fire and police training, a 911 dispatch center, a logistics section, a fire station, a 1,500-square-foot exercise facility, and a state-of-the-art 200- × 75-yard drill field. The drill field is home to a burn building, a rescue house, a railroad tanker car, a six-story drill tower, an airplane burn simulator, and a helicopter landing area.

The opening of this facility stimulated new ideas that led to the Physical Readiness Program (PRP), which physically conditions new recruits during the 13-week fire academy. In addition to the PRP, the training staff introduced the Firefighting Emergency Abilities and Tasks (FEAT) assessment, a 12-station evolution that includes common fireground activities recruits must perform at fireground pace. The FEAT assessment is conducted weekly, and recruits must finish it in 30 minutes or less, thus enhancing their fitness and conditioning. Once they complete the academy, the recruits go online and are on probation for the first year, during which time they must pass the FEAT test once per quarter. After probation, each firefighter is responsible for his own fitness training and is not required to meet any performance standards. The FEAT assessment is fully described in “Acquiring and Maintaining Good Fitness Habits,” Fire Engineering, December 2005, pages 71-75.

 

PHYSICAL READINESS PROGRAM

 

The PRP encompasses four hours per week of recruit fitness training (nine percent of total academy time). On average, the net result has been a 22-percent improvement in overall recruit fitness between the initial assessment at the beginning of the fire academy and the final assessment at the end. The program consists of fitness testing and fitness training. The testing covers fireground fitness and the more traditional standardized fitness. The fitness training includes typical fireground physical tasks and the more traditional fitness/weight room training. Initial drill field and traditional fitness assessments occur within the first week of the academy to provide a baseline for recruit fitness.

 

Drill Field Assessments

 

The drill field assessment includes hose, striking, and hoisting evolutions and a five-story stair power run.

Hose.The hose evolutions are performed with 100 feet of decommissioned three-inch hose with couplings. Each 50-foot section weighs between 42 and 44 pounds. The evolutions consist of advancing 100 feet of three-inch hose 50 yards, 100 yards, a combination of 50/100 yards (a continuous pull; the recruit first completes the 50-yard pull, then immediately completes the 100-yard pull), and finally 150 yards from the start line.

In the hose advance, the firefighter puts the hose coupling over one shoulder and, with both hands on the coupling, advances the hose by walking, jogging, or running the required distance (photo 1). The recruit then drops the coupling, quickly moves to the other end of the 100-foot length, picks up the coupling, and advances the hose in the other direction while walking backward with arms extended from the body (photo 2).

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(1) Photos by author.
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(2)

On completing the advance, the recruit stops and pulls the hose hand over hand until the front coupling reaches the start line (about 30 feet) (photo 3). Each evolution is timed and includes a three- to five-minute recovery period. Advancing hose forward and backward is instrumental in improving overall cardiovascular conditioning, muscular endurance, and grip strength.

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(3)

Striking. The striking evolution uses “the slammer,” an alteration of a forcible entry trainer designed for practicing striking skills. The altered trainer is elevated three feet above the ground on pallets so recruits can strike the 165-pound weight from the side and drive it five feet along a track. The recruit must advance the sliding weight as quickly as possible by striking it with an eight-pound dead-blow hammer using the recruit’s “strong” side and then “weak” side. At the initial assessment, the difference in performance between a recruit’s strong and weak side averages between 20 and 25 percent. By the end of the academy, there should be no difference in a recruit’s performance using either side. Striking activities improve overall upper body strength, conditioning, and grip strength (photo 4).

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Hoisting.The hoisting evolution involves a rolled 50-foot section of three-inch hose that is tied to the fifth floor of the training tower with a standard diameter rope. The recruit leans over the tower’s safety rail and hoists, hand over hand, the hose roll to the top of the fifth-floor safety rail. This is an excellent upper body and grip strengthener (photo 5).

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Tower run.The five-story stair run measures how fast a recruit can run to the fifth level and then return safely to the ground level. The recruit starts at the bottom of the first-floor stairs at the ground level of the tower and runs as fast as possible to the fifth floor and then returns to the ground-level exit door. The stair run tests the recruit’s lower body power, requiring the person to get to the top as fast as possible and then tests that person’s agility and coordination in returning to the ground level as quickly as possible (photo 6).

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Table 1 presents drill field fitness standards, divided into “Desirable,” “Acceptable,” and “Unacceptable” levels. The evaluation timings are based on the performance of incumbent firefighters: “Acceptable” represents the average time incumbents took to complete the tasks; the “Desired” and “Unacceptable” levels were each generated using one standard deviation from the mean scores. At the beginning of the fire academy, a recruit’s overall time in seconds is recorded and then compared with the overall time recorded at the end of the academy to determine whether there was any improvement.

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Fitness Assessment

 

After the drill field assessment, the recruits complete their standardized fitness assessment, which includes the following components:

  • body composition, calculated using the Jackson-Pollack three-site skinfold method;
  • body weight;
  • 1.5-mile run time;
  • bench press/leg press/lat pulldown for a maximum of 10 repetitions;
  • arm curl repetitions using 40 percent of body weight for men and 30 percent of body weight for women;
  • sit-and-reach flexibility;
  • shoulder flexibility; and
  • bent-knee sit-ups for 60 seconds.

 

The drill field assessment and standardized fitness assessment scores are combined for an overall score. After 13 weeks, the pre- and post-academy scores are compared to determine each individual’s overall improvement as well as that of the class as a whole. Tables 2-4 provide the data (all averages) from nine fire academies (2000 to 2008), representing 82 recruits—78 males and four females.

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Since Eugene has adopted the IAFC/IAFF Wellness/Fitness Initiative, after recruits graduate, every third day they must participate with their fellow incumbent firefighters in 1½ hours of stretching, strength training, cardiovascular training, and fireground fitness training.

Eugene also supports the firefighters with a comprehensive medical examination at five-year intervals; a mini-exam every 21⁄2 years; and annual exams for hazmat team members and firefighters ages 55 and older.

 

Drill Field Training

 

The drill field training takes on many forms, depending on what each recruit class needs. Most of the time after warmup and stretching is devoted to pulling hose, running up and down the tower with extra weight, performing the striking evolution using different weighted hammers, flipping heavy tires weighing 200-350 pounds (these tires are big and bulky and develop the recruits’ overall strength and muscular endurance, which is needed for lifting patients and bulky equipment; developing lower and upper back strength; and increasing grip strength), cleaning and pressing (lifting) weighted logs (75-125 pounds), and hoisting hose up the side of the tower. One advantage of the drill field is a grassy hill that extends 155 feet with a 15-percent grade. Dragging hose or running up “hydrant hill” helps with overall conditioning.

A normal drill-field conditioning session consists of the following: warmup and stretching; two 50-yard hose pulls at an easy pace; and six to 12 hose pulls, ranging from 50 to 175 yards. After this, recruits are divided into groups and complete different circuits.

Circuit 1 (two or three times)

  • Advance 100 feet of three-foot hose 100 yards and back.
  • Climb to the fifth level of the drill tower on the exterior ladder, crawl through the window, and descend back down the inside stairs to the first floor. There, pick up two hose bundles (each with 50 feet of three-inch hose) and climb up the internal staircase to the top and return to the first floor.

 

Circuit 2 (three times)

  • Pull 100 feet of three-inch hose 100 yards and back.
  • Flip a big 350-pound tire end-over-end for 25 yards, then flip a small 200-pound tire end-over-end for 40 yards.
  • With a 75-pound weighted log, complete 10 clean-and-press lifts.

 

Circuit 3 (three times)

  • Run to the fifth floor of the drill tower (usually carrying nothing but sometimes carrying a hose bundle).
  • Hoist one roll of 50 feet of three-inch hose to the fifth-floor safety rail and return the roll safely to the ground. Go down the stairs to the first level.
  • At the forcible entry trainer, advance the sliding weight five feet, using the strong side and then the weak side.

 

Circuit 4 (two times)

  • Advance 100 feet of three-inch hose 100 yards and drop the coupling.
  • Jog to the end of the drill field, pick up the coupling of one 50-foot length of three-inch hose, advance it up the hydrant hill to the fence, and then return the length safely down the hill to the drill field.
  • Jog back to the 100-foot section and advance the hose backward to the west end of the drill field (approximately 65 yards).

 

 

Exercise Room Training

 

Indoor conditioning consists of cardiovascular training involving treadmills, stair climbing, stepmills, elliptical trainers, and versa climbing. Strength conditioning consists of traditional weight training and kettlebells for overall body strength conditioning. (A kettlebell is a round cast iron weight that resembles a cannonball with a handle.) Added in 2003, the kettlebell training has proven to be very effective for overall body conditioning.

One of the more popular workouts includes warmup and stretching, followed by three or four kettlebell exercises to warm up the group and make it ready to go. The group is divided in half; one half uses the cardio machines and the other half uses the kettlebells. Each group completes three 10-minute sessions in a circuit fashion.

The cardio group members complete 10 minutes of training at 85 percent of their heart-rate maximum and then complete one kettlebell exercise for five sets with 60-second rests between sets. They start with five reps and with each set increase the number of reps by five, finishing with 25 reps (5, 10, 15, 20, 25). The recruits begin with some basic exercises such as the two-hand power swing, squat-press, and one-arm snatch. The trick is finding the proper weight of kettlebell so each recruit can push to make the 20 and 25 reps. If recruits can complete all three exercises (swing, squat-press, and snatch), they will achieve 300 reps of total body movement, proving effective overall conditioning.

For any fire department considering adding any new type of conditioning equipment, I highly recommend including kettlebells. You can use them to increase strength and muscular endurance and for specific movements that firefighters need to make in performing their normal activities.

STEVE AUFEROTH is the director of health and fitness for the City of Eugene, Oregon.

 

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