7 reasons for annual firefighter physical tests

It is more important to know firefighters’ physical abilities each year than at the beginning of their careers.

I have heard a lot of discussion about annual physical assessment tests — whether they are a good idea, if they are necessary, how relevant they are, how well accepted they are and whether the world will end if a department implements one.

Not to ruin the punch line, but the answer to the last question has been “no” for every department I have worked with that has adopted one for their incumbent personnel.

It is true that introducing a PAT in a department that has never had one can be a scary and daunting experience. The concern that “they are trying to get rid of us” is common. But I have yet to see a case where it is actually warranted.

However, it does point to the need for a well-designed and relevant test and even more to a process for rehabilitation for those who struggle to finish the test in an appropriate time.

Opinions about what a test should include vary. While some departments have used traditional fitness tasks as their measuring stick, others find that the fitness tasks seem unrelated to actual fireground performance.

Asking how running a mile or doing pushups for 2 minutes directly relates to a firefighter’s ability to crawl into a burning building is a valid question. Interestingly, the best fitness predictor in the literature of performance on fireground activity measures is actually a 400-meter sprint — about a quarter mile. This makes sense given fighting a fire is more of a sprint than a marathon.

While more traditional measures of fitness may be statistically related to fireground performance, many departments are moving toward measuring tasks that are more representative of the fireground. Despite the debate, there are significant benefits to adopting PATs at the department level. Here are seven of them.

1. It measures where personnel are.

Everyone likes to think they are fit and capable to do the job — and many firefighters are. But it’s hard to know for sure if there is no objective measure in place. It also is impossible to know how a firefighter ranks compared to others without a standard set of tasks everyone performs the same way.

In a study on firefighters’ self-perception of health and wellness, we found that firefighters had to be nearly morbidly obese (a body mass index of more than 39) before they perceived themselves as being obese. In short, we are not good at guessing our own health.

2. It measures change over time.

Maybe even more important than an assessment of ability at any point are the trends across time. Fitness and physical abilities typically decline with age.

Seeing trends across time are a good wake-up call when things start to slip. This also speaks to the need for a well-designed test that can be done consistently across time so personnel can use it as a measuring stick. While testing new evolutions every year sounds appealing for variety, any change in the standard practice makes comparisons difficult.

3. PATs ensure minimum competency.

PATs are not designed to stack rank how good personnel are at firefighting. What goes into being a good firefighter is more complex than just the ability to perform the tasks of a test while not on the fireground.

What the test does do, however, is identifies who is and who is not able to complete minimal tasks that are required on the fireground.

4. PATs identify individual weaknesses.

It is important for individuals to know what their relevant weaknesses and strengths are for the tasks on a PAT. If it is particularly difficult for a firefighter to do a dummy drag, it’s important to know that before the same firefighter hits the fireground and has to do the task for real.

In addition, any relative weaknesses or difficulties in completing tasks can point to areas of focus for improvement when planning training and workouts.

5. What is good for the candidate is good for the incumbent.

National adoption of the Candidate Physical Ability Test was a milestone for the fire service. Testing candidates and knowing they are physically capable of doing tasks required on the fireground is an excellent screening measure. Yet, knowing that the personnel already on the job can do the same thing is even more important.

Typically, recruits are in the best shape they will be at the point they graduate from recruit school. Knowing what they can do at that point is helpful, but may or may not be a good predictor for later in their careers.

Anecdotal reports from one large department showed that recruits gain 15 pounds on average their first year on the job. And we know firefighters gain an average of 2.2 pounds a year. It is likely that this weight gain comes at the cost of fitness and readiness.

6. It speaks about a department’s culture.

Departments vary in the way they implement their PATs, when and how they complete the test and how seriously they take the results. But, regardless of the implementation, it sends the message that physical performance is a consideration for doing the job.

7. It makes firefighters think about expected abilities.

Lately, I have worked with Kingman (Ariz.) Fire Department to develop its PAT. It has been an interesting experience.

Kingman is a great department with a lot of forward thinking and dedicated firefighters who are excited to get the processes together. As part of the process, we conducted focus groups with some of the crews and asked what fire ground activities they have to perform, what they think about a PAT, and who they think should be able to do the required tasks.

The discussion always circled around to the need for everyone on the department who responds to calls to be able to perform every task — a conversation the firefighters started, not me.

While the likelihood of some personnel having to perform all tasks was low given their position in the department, they said that they are in the business of worst case scenarios and that being prepared for worst case is in the job description.

I got the impression that there were some reservations about implementing a department-wide PAT, which has been part of the process for every department I know of that has done it. But the process and conversation led to a lot of insights about the importance of such a test.

One of the most effective ways in the social psychology literature to get people to support an issue is to have them argue for it. In some ways, just the process of developing a test in a collaborative way with the line personnel highlights the need for the test.

A department would not put a truck in service that could not perform the tasks necessary on the fireground because it would put both the firefighters and civilians at risk. I have yet to hear anyone claim truck checks should be abandoned because it’s better to not know if there is a problem with the truck.

Aren’t the personnel being put on the truck even more important than the equipment they are riding?