PHYSICAL FITNESS ASSESSMENT PROGRAMS

TO SIMPLY ASSESS AN INDIVIDUAL’S PHYSICAL ABILITY IS ONLY A SMALL PORTION OF A DEPARTMENT’S OVERALL WELLNESS AND FITNESS PROGRAM.

On the whole, I believe that the fire service is relatively physically “fit.” As I visualize the groups of firefighters I visit or who attend the FDIC and FDIC West, I don’t see a majority of hefty firefighters.

Having said that, I also realize that outward appearances may not always reveal the real story. Cardiovascular fitness probably has more to do with a firefighter’s overall health and ability to function on the fireground than having a few extra inches on the midriff.

Our department has struggled with the issue of firefighters’ physical fitness for as long as I can remember. When I came on the job in 1975, we had mandatory stretching and exercise programs that were supposed to be done every tour. This program, as do many of this kind, fell by the wayside.

There were no defined goals, and the program was implemented with little or no input from the members. Since then, we have tried several “programs” with similar success. “On paper” (by union contract over the past several contracts) members are supposed to participate in a “job-related medical/physical fitness standard.” The union was to approve the program; it never happened.

In the most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the union approved the “Cardiovascular Fitness Assessment Development Program for Professional Firefighters” designed by Bio Computer Services. Firefighters participate in a bicycle test and do some basic weightlifting to arrive at a “Firefighter Fitness Index,” which relates to how firefighters can perform on the fireground.

The test also provides a theoretical “cardiovascular fitness age” for the firefighters. The ideal is that the firefighter’s cardiovascular age is less than the firefighter’s real age. (A 30-year-old male firefighter would do well to have the cardiovascular age of, say, a 24-year-old firefighter.)

We are working through the “bugs” of the system and hope to be up and running (or riding, as it were) soon. But as of today, I would have to say that there is no annual physical fitness assessment program in Toledo.

-John (Skip) Coleman, deputy chief of training and EMS, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue; author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000); editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering; and member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.

Question: Does your department require personnel to participate in an annual physical agility assessment? If so, what comprises the agility test?

Steve Kreis, assistant chief, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department
Response: The simple answer for the Phoenix Fire Department is “no.” But, this is a complex and very sensitive issue.

During the development of the wellness/fitness initiative sponsored by the International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (see “A Cooperative Approach to Building a Healthier Fire Service,” Fire Engineering, January 1998), this question was discussed in great detail. Basically, developers of the initiative concluded that incumbent testing did not provide “value” over the long term. It is really easy to use an annual physical agility assessment to evaluate an incumbent’s ability to perform the job of a firefighter, but the issue of firefighter wellness and fitness is much more complex. Using the wellness and fitness initiative as a guide for fire departments allows us to do the following:

  • Educate prospective candidates about the physical demands and requirements of firefighting.
  • Validate a candidate’s ability to be trained to perform the physical attributes of a firefighter by using cardiovascular physical agility testing.
  • Teach recruits and incumbents about correct fitness habits.
  • Monitor incumbent firefighters’ medical and fitness needs during an annual physical exam and fitness evaluation.
  • Measure their ability to perform the tasks associated with the job by using “minimum company standards” on an annual (or semiannual) basis.
  • Address problem areas using “peer fitness trainers” while providing conditioning equipment at various locations. (Each fire station in Phoenix has a full complement of fitness equipment.)
  • Where necessary, administer “mandatory nonpunitive” discipline.

This approach requires a significant commitment by each member and each organization. We all attest that the most valuable asset we have are the people who work for us.

To simply assess an individual’s physical ability is only a small portion of an overall wellness and fitness program. It’s time to step up and do what we say. Although it may not be the perfect solution, the wellness/fitness initiative is the most comprehensive plan we have. Organizations must take the extra steps outlined in the initiative to safeguard our most valuable resource.

Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
Response: For the past nine years, our department has used a physical agility test that was validated by an outside firm. Back then, the validation process was conducted at our training facility and required that the majority of the department complete the assessment. The assessment consisted of several evolutions and tasks. We used this process up until this past summer.

Recently, our Training/Health and Safety Division, along with our Fitness/Wellness Committee and Human Resources Department, reevaluated our physical agility process and determined that it was due for reassessment. An outside firm was hired, and the process was revised. Throughout the revision process, the group wanted to make sure of the following:

  • that the process consider our current fireground practices;
  • that the physical “ability” assessment be tailored, where needed, to fit our training facility; and
  • that it be fair and objective and would be accepted and supported by the department as a whole.

The revision process began with several meetings between the consultant and the previously mentioned group, the fire department staff, and interviews of the troops. Equipment such as various tools, fans, cots, turnout gear, and so on were weighed. A majority of members completed a questionnaire. A pacing study was conducted. After completion of the study, the revised process was presented to the group. It was accepted.

The process includes the following five steps:

  1. Carry a hose pack weighing 54 pounds and consisting of 100 feet of 13/4-inch hose with a nozzle, a wye, and two spanner wrenches up to the top floor of our training tower.
  2. Once at the top floor, crawl following a predetermined path.
  3. Return downstairs, and work the Keiser Force machine.
  4. Move 100 feet of a 200-foot charged 13/4-inch line 100 feet (from point A to point B).
  5. Drag a 174-pound manikin 65 feet.

To pass, the candidate must have completed the process in four minutes and 17 seconds or less while wearing a helmet, a turnout coat, gloves, and an SCBA with no mask.

Currently, we do not require all of our personnel to participate. Many do voluntarily; others may consider doing so in the future. We see a minimal number of failures during candidate testing. We offer several practice sessions prior to the actual assessment. To date, we are satisfied with the process.

Frank C. Schaper, chief, St. Charles (MO) Fire Department
Response: Presently, our department does not require personnel to participate in an annual physical agility assessment. However, we are looking into it.

A year ago, our department began to slowly adopt the IAFC/IAFF physical fitness initiative. Personnel receive an annual comprehensive physical. Union and management encourage health and wellness. Physical fitness equipment is supplied to all the stations. The equipment can be used at any time of the day on a voluntary basis. Currently, we are reevaluating the program with an interest in taking it to the next level. Our ultimate goals are to have scheduled physical fitness activity during duty hours and to have personnel perform an annual agility test.

Bob Oliphant, lieutenant, Kalamazoo (M) Department of Public Safety
Response: Our department does not require annual physical agility testing. The only physical agility testing requirement is prior to employment. Candidates must pass separate police and fire agility tests. Both tests are criterion-based and simulate physically demanding tasks that could be encountered on the job. The state requires the police agility test. The fire agility test is not a state requirement; we developed it to evaluate a candidate’s firefighting abilities.

I think the concept of annual physical testing is good but not without controversy. Should testing be based on job performance or a person’s general level of fitness? Should age and gender be considered? Should all members of the organization undergo testing or just those who perform physically demanding jobs? To what degree should an employer support employee fitness? Unless labor and management agree on this issue, I do not think physical agility testing could be implemented.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief, Seattle (WA) Fire Department
Response: Our department does not require individual firefighters to participate in an annual physical agility assessment. Until the mid-1990s, we had a battalion chief assigned to the Training Division as evaluation officer. His primary duty was to conduct an individual assessment and standard company drills to evaluate the physical capabilities of our members individually and as a team. Physical capabilities and firefighting knowledge and skills were considered equally important.

The evaluation officer’s assessment was documented; the chief officers were responsible for follow-up action. This required a high degree of consistency in the evaluation process. The evaluation officer conducted all of the evaluations at our training facility. The logistics of having one person conduct all of the evaluations at one facility became an extreme challenge, considering the other demands on the evaluation officer and the facility.

In the late 1990s, department management decided that the functions of the evaluation officer duplicated those of the operations battalion chiefs and determined that the function of the evaluation officer would be incorporated into the responsibilities of the battalion chief. Working toward that goal, we developed guidelines for operations battalion chiefs to follow in conducting an annual evaluation. The battalion chief (as evaluation officer) position was transferred from the Training Division to another division. The current decentralized evaluation process is less consistent than a centralized evaluation process. However, the responsibility for evaluation and follow-up falls to the chief officer, who knows the needs of the individual members and of each company. He can conduct training or secure other resources for change.

Larry Anderson, deputy chief, Dallas (TX) Fire-Rescue
Response: Dallas Fire-Rescue does not require annual physical agility assessments. We do administer an annual body composition analysis to all our emergency operations personnel. This analysis provides each member with a number that represents the percentage of fat in the body. Members who fall into the “poor” or “very poor” categories are notified that another analysis will be given in three months. Each member is offered assistance with diet and nutrition regimens. Adherence to these regimens is strictly voluntary, but we hope to develop more enforceable programs in the future. Maintaining physical health and conditioning is an aspect of the firefighting profession that has been neglected in the past. With the advent of new standards and administrative awareness, I hope the future will hold healthier and happier firefighters.

Leigh Hollins, battalion chief, Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue
Response: Our department requires that all personnel pass an agility assessment. Suppression personnel below the rank of battalion chief are required to participate in, and pass, a revised version of the Firefighter Combat Challenge, known as part II of our program. All other personnel, except the secretarial staff and service personnel, are encouraged to participate.

The agility assessment depicts tasks similar to those required at fire scenes such as climbing stairs, carrying hose packs, pulling equipment to upper stories with a rope, striking an object with a sledgehammer, advancing a charged hoseline, flowing water from a hoseline, and dragging a victim.

The tasks are performed sequentially. We believe they accurately reflect the demands imposed on a firefighter during actual firefighting. Not all fires are the same, and it is not possible to anticipate every scenario. However, a firefighter who can complete the evolutions within the required time limits possesses the level of fitness necessary to meet most emergency demands. The assessment provides a reliable, realistic, and valid measurement of the firefighters’ fitness levels.

The agility assessment is performed in full bunker gear (athletic shoes and shorts may be allowed in place of bunker pants/boots) while breathing from SCBA. It is held under clear weather conditions. The objective is to complete the assessment in less than nine minutes. There is no limit on air use.

All chief-level and nonsuppression personnel are required to participate in and pass a separate agility assessment, known as part I of our program.

Part I is a revised version of a military agility assessment developed by a major university. There are three areas of testing:

  1. The aerobic function test (choose one)
    -1.5-mile run (for time)
    -3-mile walking test (for time)
    -12-minute cycling test (miles).
  2. The flexibility test
    -platform toe touch test, with positive or negative flexibility points.
    3. The muscular endurance and strength test (perform each)
    -curl-ups – 1 minute
    -push-ups – 1 minute
    -arm hang (for time).

This section includes minimum reps and/or time based on sex and age.

The program has been in place for several years. We recently implemented an incentive program that awards monetary prizes for part II for personnel on each shift who have the best and the most improved times.

We also have a policy that provides a physical training program for anyone who does not successfully complete the assessment. We have never had to place anyone in that program.

Tom Brennan, 20-year veteran, Fire Department of New York; chief (ret.), Waterbury (CT) Fire Department
Response: I would not like to see the department give a positive/negative scoring that members could misunderstand and might be looked on as something of which they might not be proud. This happened in New York City in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and again under this past administration. There should be a policy that operates for the department, the unit, the shift, the individual firefighter, and the city and its citizens.

The program should serve as a guideline or workbook for the department’s future plans of operations-training needs, tools and equipment, and operational guide updates and improvements. It, for example, could be an ongoing record of task performance and success based on staffing that the department could assess in a positive manner to support its staffing concepts. Labor could use it for the same reasons. Management could use it to assess what is lost against what is saved through staffing reductions.

The sad thing is that you can relay a heck of a lot more information to a department head than what is apparently being measured.

I would hate to see the word required used and put in the same category as standardized. This would negatively affect spirit, competition, and self-actualization. The words tested, rated, categorized, and passed all evoke the same negative feelings, at least from my perspective. I have seen great officers who could give split-second orders and directions and who could act and react to all kinds of fires and emergencies with great success become physically ill when scheduled for ratings against a behavior standard like evolution, training bulletin, operational guide, SOP, or SOG at a site watched by people with whom they would never have worked whose only goal was to check prepared boxes on sheets of paper.

Kevin J. Schmalz, fire prevention officer, Development & Technical Services, Kitchener (Ontario) Fire Department
Response: City officials and our department considered implementing an annual physical agility test about 10 years ago. Instead, however, we instituted a Wellness Program established in partnership with the Kitchener Professional Fire Fighters Association.

This program offers many benefits. It alleviates many of the issues surrounding mandatory testing, disputes, and morale concerns. The program is completely voluntary; however, every fire station has good quality fitness equipment. Firefighters are typically given anywhere from an hour to two or three hours daily for working out.

The baseline of fitness levels has generally increased across the department, and peer pressure or encouragement/coaching by fellow firefighters has helped firefighters to improve or maintain good physical conditioning in most cases. Although some do not participate as often as desirable, this voluntary approach and peer pressure and coaching tend to be good and effective mechanisms.

Some incentives we have used to try to involve anxious or more lethargic personnel in fitness activities include playing floor hockey in full gear with SCBA, which provides a tremendous workout. It also offers opportunities for fostering teamwork (competition between crews), learning controlled breathing while under exertion, and familiarization with the heat strains firefighters feel when wearing full turnout gear. It’s a great cardiovascular workout. And, it’s fun, which makes it more likely that the members will participate regularly in the activities. Table tennis tournaments, basketball games, and other similar events are other “fun” approaches.

Occasionally, injuries related to a fitness activity may occur, but the benefit of knowing your firefighters are striving to maintain or improve their physical conditioning must outweigh this risk potential. Encouraging safe but effective fitness activities is prudent. After all, your firefighters take risks every day.

A voluntary in-house wellness program can help to reduce these risks and encourage personnel to make these activities part of their daily routine throughout their careers.

This program has been successful and has helped to instill pride and foster brotherhood in our department and has helped promote good relations between management and personnel.

Robert Wesley, engineer, Chesterton (IN) Fire Department
Response: Our department no longer requires members to participate in an annual physical agility test; however, they can participate when it is administered to new applicants. Up until a few years ago, it was a “required activity,” if you will.

I believe our department has a rather difficult test, and many applicants do not pass it. Maybe that is part of the reason we are not required to run it anymore, for fear that some members might not be able to “make the cut” any longer. A few years and a few pounds can push the physical limits to the test.

I believe all fire department personnel should have to take and pass every year our physical ability test, which consists of two events.

  • The aerial climb. Climb the ladder 75 feet at a 70° angle, touching every rung up and down, in less than three minutes.
  • Complete the following battery of station tasks in less than nine minutes and 47 seconds while wearing a bunker coat, a helmet, and an SCBA:

-While wearing a blackened facepiece, follow a 100-foot section of 13/4-inch hose around a room to the end, where a 170-pound manikin is positioned. Drag the manikin back 50 feet, following the hoseline. Walk between stations, and remove the facepiece.

-Carrying an eight-pound sledgehammer, climb and descend two flights of stairs twice, touching every stair on the way down.

-Pick up from the ground two 50-foot rolls of three-inch hose (one at a time), carry them 50 feet, place them on the tailboard of the engine, and return them to the pickup point in the order in which they were carried.

-Drag a 100-foot section of three-inch hose with a nozzle 100 feet to the finish line, drop the dry hose, and pick up 100 feet of charged 13/4-inch hose and drag it back to the starting point.

-Remove a 14-foot roof ladder from the side of the engine and carry it 50 feet to the side of the building. Set the ladder on the ground. Perform a flat raise, placing the heel of the ladder in the prescribed location.

-Using a hydrant wrench, remove one cap from the ear of the hydrant, fully open the plug, and return it to the closed position. Attach one section of hose to the hydrant, clear your hands, remove the hose, and place the hose and the wrench in the proper positions. Replace the cap on the dog-ear.

-Using the hand-over-hand method, raise and lower one 50-foot roll of three-inch hose secured to the hoist hook (approximately 30 feet) two times.

After the test is completed, participants remove their equipment and proceed to the rehab area, where EMS personnel assess their vital signs and the participants are rehydrated.

Don DeLancey, lieutenant, City of Leduc (Alberta, Canada) Fire Services
Response: Our department is a paid on-call department with 40 members and two full-time staff (chief and deputy chief). Currently, we do not have a physical agility test for our members; however, we hold a combat challenge every February.

Platoon 1 is pitted against platoon 2 in a friendly physical challenge. Participants wear a 45-minute SCBA and go on air. They then engage in the following activities:

  • at a dead blow sledgehammer station, pound a block of steel a distance of six feet;
  • carry a 65 mm 2 15 m hose roll-up a story flight of stairs, 75 feet across the room, and down a ladder;
  • complete a 75-foot reverse dummy drag;
  • spot a two-fly ladder, climb up half-way, do a single leg lock, continue up to the top, ring a bell, and descend;
  • do five push-ups; and
  • proceed across a finish line.

Although the challenge has only five stations, it is physically taxing. Participation is voluntary. There are bragging rights on the line!

No posts to display