How to Train for a Department Physical Ability Test

Issue 11 and Volume 3.

Exceptional physical ability is key to a successful career in the fire service. That’s not to say you have to be a world-class athlete to be effective, but you must be coordinated, strong and have a good cardiovascular capacity to be truly useful on an emergency scene. Granted, a very overweight, out-of-shape individual may be able to carry extrication equipment 40 feet off the rig to a car accident scene; however, if that same individual tries to climb five flights of stairs, hook up to a standpipe and fight fire for 10 minutes or so, given the right circumstances, they could potentially become the focus of a mayday situation—and no one wants to deal with that. Because we don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing the times when we’re useful in this business, firefighters must be physically ready for just about anything.

Testing, Testing … It’s a rare individual who becomes more fit once on the job, let alone maintains a reasonable level of fitness until retirement. The physiological norm is to become slower and weaker as we advance through our years of service, something fire departments must consider when hiring new employees.

One way to address this concern is to ensure that each department has a valid physical ability test (PAT) in place. We can’t afford to implement tests that are too easy because the stakes are too high. Our personal safety and that of the public we serve are both at risk if physically incapable people are put into hazardous work environments in the fire service.

This said, it’s unfair and legally questionable to make the test too difficult. Your department’s PAT must reflect the reasonable expectations of your department’s fireground performance—both in chosen tasks and the rate at which those tasks will be completed.

Let’s Get Physical So what’s a PAT? Essentially it’s an opportunity for your department to assess a fire service candidate’s likelihood of being able to function properly on the fireground. Typically, the test consists of several task-oriented stations that must be completed in a particular sequence to assess a candidate’s physical ability to perform similar operations on the fireground. Ideally, a candidate should be able to maintain a reasonable and acceptable pace as they move through the course and complete all the tasks. It’s also common practice to try to simulate the additional weight a firefighter must carry while on the fireground. Weight vests or personal protective clothing are worn to increase the burden on the candidate.

Note: Avoid skill-based testing, because it’s only appropriate if your department requires Firefighter I and/or Firefighter II certifications as part of your hiring criteria. One good way to tell whether your testing is skill-based is to pull out your training records. If you’ve dedicated time to developing skills like handling unanchored ladders, taking a fireplug or any other fireground activity that the layperson wouldn’t be familiar with, avoid it in your physical ability testing.

The Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) is one type of PAT that was developed by the International Association of Fire Fighters and requires pretest-training sessions. It consists of the stair climb, which is performed on a stair machine, the ladder raise and extension, the hose drag, equipment carry, forcible entry, search, rescue and the ceiling breach and pull. Throughout the duration of this test, candidates wear a 50-lb. weight vest. During the stair climb component, instructors add 25 lbs. to the candidates’ gear to simulate a shoulder load of hose.

If your department doesn’t administer the CPAT, give candidates an opportunity to use your physical ability course prior to the test. Even a physically fit person would benefit from striking the Kieser machine or giving the ceiling breach-and-pull exercise a try.

Training for the Test There are three key elements to address when advising people on training for a PAT: aerobic conditioning, strength and biomechanics. Individuals must be fit enough to complete the test and strong enough to operate with the given equipment. Efficiency of movement through proper biomechanics will help conserve energy, hopefully leading to a successful run through the course.

Aerobic Conditioning As far as cardiovascular conditioning goes, running stairs is probably the best place to start. Most PATs have a stair-climbing component in the early stages of the test; getting through that component without completely expending yourself is critical.

There are two ways to acquire this type of conditioning: Run actual stairs or get on a stair machine in the workout room. Although the stair machine is good in a pinch, we recommend getting out on the real stairs. Actually moving your body up the stairs against the pull of gravity provides deeper conditioning and strengthening. Using a stair machine rather than stairs, however, could be beneficial in developing your balance since you aren’t allowed to hold onto the handles during the CPAT.

When running stairs or engaging in any aerobic training, it’s best to include both interval and pace training work. About 80 percent of your time spent actually exerting yourself should be devoted to pace work and 20 percent to interval work (see FireRescue, Dec. 2006, p. 86 and Jan. 2007, p. 110). This will greatly improve your chances of coming out of the stairwell or off the stair machine feeling like you still have some gas in your tank.

Further, training under load will also be critical to success. When beginning a stair training program, start by wearing lightweight clothing, such as running shoes, a T-shirt and shorts. If you can get in two or three good stair training days a week, you should be able to comfortably start adding fire gear every week or so. First add your boots, then coat, air pack, pants, etc., until you can run your intervals in full turnouts with SCBA. We don’t recommend training on air, however. This can be very hard on your lungs.

Strength Training Although the PAT in its entirety is typically a test of the candidate’s aerobic fitness level, the individual components are designed to test muscle strength and short-term endurance. Strength development prior to the test should focus on integrated leg, back and upper body lifts, as well as grip strength.

To increase strength in specific muscle groups, you must target those muscle groups in your training. Increasing grip strength, for example, requires a specific effort, like repeatedly squeezing a gripping device. We recommend tools designed to help rock climbers strengthen their hands or the good, old-fashioned spring-tension grip-strengthening device you can purchase at any gym equipment store. You also develop grip strength when lifting weights; merely trying to hold onto the bar while lifting it helps with grip strength.

On the other hand, more general lifts will benefit many muscle groups, including critical core muscles. Four key lifts that will help candidates prepare for a PAT are dead lifts, power cleans, thrusters and squats (FireRescue, March 2007, p. 114; July 2007, p. 110; August 2007, p. 186). Take the time to review the proper technique for each of these lifts before trying to teach them to a candidate. Doing them improperly will likely be detrimental.

Biomechanics Biomechanics is an interesting component of training. After witnessing hundreds of people go through various PATs, it has become quite obvious to us that understanding how to use the body to its greatest advantage is not necessarily instinctual. The forcible entry prop, the ceiling breach and pull, and the dummy drag are all classic examples of times when a solid understanding of technique is going to pay back dividends on the course, but not everyone uses the proper technique.

Rotation, utilizing body mass and recruiting the strongest muscles to do the more difficult tasks will always prove very helpful. Force generated from rotation is common in a variety of sports. Everything from tennis to golf to baseball relies on the power generated from body rotation. Trying to do any of these sports by just using your arm strength would be difficult and would likely lead to injury. So why not implement the same concepts into various aspects of firefighting?

When trying to complete the forcible entry prop during the CPAT, just as in swinging a flathead axe to strike a Halligan, you can generate considerably more force by rotating your body as you swing rather than just swinging with your arms.

Just like swinging at a baseball, the first part of your body to move should be your hips, leaving your upper body to lag behind. As your hips rotate around, let your body uncoil as you bring the mallet around to strike the object. By doing this, you’ll not only generate considerably more force, you’ll also put less stress on your shoulder joint.

Whenever you can safely create force by using body mass, do it. Yes, you’ll use a lot of arm strength to pull and push on the ceiling breach machine, but why not get more of your body into the movement? For pulling, use abdominal muscles and body weight to generate more power. You can greatly enhance the pushing component if you include your leg strength in the effort. Dragging the hose can also be facilitated by leaning into it and utilizing your body mass and inertia to advance. While taking the test, always take advantage of every opportunity to use your legs and your body weight to accomplish the task. Lifting any equipment off the ground should always be done predominantly with the legs.

Conclusion There are countless ways to make your fireground efforts more efficient. Take a moment to study some of our most common movement patterns and then think of ways, as we’ve suggested, to generate more power with less effort.

Taking the time to train candidates on how to prepare for your department’s PAT should be the beginning of a long career of good physical fitness habits. Remember: Many fire service candidates haven’t had the opportunity to even touch fire hose, let alone train with it. The tools of the trade can seem quite foreign to people who don’t have fiscal means to enroll in fire school or other vocational training. If you broaden the pool of perspective candidates, you increase the opportunity to select the optimum performer who will contribute to your organizational goals for years to come.