Friday, June 26, 2015

Training specifics: Getting ready for a fire fighters physical exam

I've recently been asked to develop a training program for someone who wants to enter the fire fighters physical exam in order to become a life-saving hero. 

In order to become a fire fighter, potential candidates must pass a rigorous physical test. This test is known as the CPAT, or the Candidate Physical Ability Test. From we learn that the CPAT is an intense examination of a candidate's cardiovascular and muscular strength and endurance (the CPAT described in includes requirements for USA fire fighters). Candidates must therefore prove themselves to be in top shape, with enough strength and endurance to handle extreme situations before being allowed to serve as fire fighters.

This makes perfect sense when you think about the work that is required of a fire fighter. Fire fighters are required to roll down heavy water hoses, connect heavy brass couplings to hydrants and fire engines, climb ladders, break down doors, clear obstructions, handle fire hoses with water spewing out at tremendous pressures and carry victims to safety just to name a few. All of this must be performed while wearing a heavy safety suit, other protective gear and oxygen bottles on their backs. And off course time is of the essence. Lives may be lost if the fire fighter cannot reach people in danger quickly enough. So, if the fire fighter is not in the best shape, he/she may not be able to perform all the tasks that are required to save lives.

The CPAT contains 8 tasks that are designed to expose the candidate to the situations they may be faced with in the real world. These 8 tasks include:

1. The stair climb - the candidate must wear full protective clothing as well as a weighted pack that simulates breathing apparatus and fire hoses while climbing a set of stairs or performing the test on a stair climbing machine. The test is designed to last for three minutes, during which the candidate must maintain a 60 step per minute cadence. That's 1 step per second.

2. The hose drag - the candidate places a hose nozzle over the shoulder or chest and must then drag 200 feet of hose for 75 feet, then around a drum, making a 90 degree angle, after which the hose is dragged for a further 25 feet. The candidate then lowers to one knee and in this stationary position, drags the hose with arms and hands for a further 50 feet. 

3. The equipment carry - this test is designed to test the candidate's ability to fetch and carry heavy power tools from a cabinet in a fire truck to the scene of an accident or fire. To do this the candidate must remove two power saws from a cabinet, one at a time, then pick them both up and move them to a spot 75 feet away.

4. The ladder raise and extension - the candidate must pick up an unhinged end of a ladder, carry it to a wall and place it against the wall. Then the candidate immediately returns to the other end of the ladder, picks it up and flips it up and over until the whole ladder leans against the wall. From here the ladder is extended, then lowered and finally brought away from the wall as well.

5. The forcible entry test - this test determines a candidate's ability to break down a door or other obstruction with a sledgehammer. The candidate strikes a force measuring device with a sledgehammer and must hit hard enough for the measurement to pass a certain threshold.

6. The search test - in this test candidates must crawl on hands and knees through a tunnel maze. The maze will be dark and may also be filled with smoke. Some of the sections of the maze will be smaller and tighter than the rest. It has been designed to test the candidates ability to find victims in cramped spaces.

7. The rescue test - candidates are required to drag a 165 pound mannequin on a stretcher for 35 feet, make a 180 degree turn and drag the mannequin a further 35 feet. The test simulates the scenario where a fire fighter must drag a victim and remove him/her from danger.

8. The ceiling breach and pull test - the candidate removes a pike from it's bracket on a fire engine, then uses it to poke a door in a ceiling 3 times. Immediately following this, the candidate must use the hook of the pike to pull a platform from the ceiling 5 times. The 3 time/5 time set is performed a number of times and simulates the breaking down of a ceiling to determine the spread of a fire.

As if these 8 tests weren't enough, candidates are given only 10 minutes and 20 seconds to complete all 8 tests correctly (University of Waterloo). If you take longer than the allotted time, you automatically fail the CPAT. It is important to know that in an actual CPAT, the course is designed so that it allows the candidate to walk from test to test. The distances between tests are approximately 85 feet long and affords the candidate about 20 seconds to catch their breath and prepare for the next test. Therefore, when you perform your workouts and preparation for the CPAT, remember to take a 20 second rest between each test in order to simulate the actual CPAT as closely as possible.

Now that we know what the physical tests are to become a fire fighter, we can move on to how we can prepare ourselves to take the CPAT and pass it the first time with flying colors. But before we can jump straight in, we need an overview of the important pieces of equipment necessary to simulate the CPAT. What you'll need are the following:

1. A backpack in which you can place weights, bricks, stones or bottles filled with water or sand, or a weighted body harness. The backpack/harness simulates the heavy equipment that a fire fighter must carry when fighting fires or responding to emergencies and must weigh a minimum of 50 pounds (approx 22.6 kg). You need to carry this backpack/harness at all times during your workouts and preparations. Backpack/harness and person must become as one.

2. Access to either a stepping machine or a long staircase in order to perform exercises that will help you to pass the stair climb test.

3. A dragging platform to which you may add weights. The dragging platform simulates the heavy fire hoses, couplings and nozzles which fire fighters get to work with every time an emergency occurs.

If you don't have a dragging platform or if you don't have access to a gym, a tyre, to which a length of rope is connected will work just fine. Basically, anything of appropriate weight to which a rope may be fixed and which you can drag along the ground. The rope must be long enough for you to sling it over your shoulder so that the tyre may drag along behind you as you walk or run. You'll be needing some weights as well. The weights must be placed on the tyre as you drag it forwards. Bricks will work really well, otherwise use more tyres and place them on top of one another, or connect them to each other. Stones will also work. If you don't have a tyre, then fix a rope to a car and pull that along.

4. A set of dumbbells or weights that may be used to perform lunges and overhead presses. These will help you to prepare for the ladder test. If you don't have dumbbells or access to a gym, try to find adequate weights with which you can perform lunges and overhead presses. Large stones will work, or pails of water or sand fixed to the ends of a metal pole.

5. A sledgehammer or other heavy weight that you can use to swing to the ground or to hit a tyre with. Many gyms these days have sledgehammers and large tractor tyres which are used in cardio styled workouts. If you don't have a sledgehammer, swing a heavy stone above your head, or improvise: fix a stone to a pole and use that to simulate a sledgehammer. 

If you have neither the hammer nor the stone, but access to a gym, then use a lat pulldown machine to simulate the upwards and downwards strokes of the hammer swing.

6. A stopwatch or other timing device. You'll use this to make sure you keep your CPAT test under 10 minutes and 20 seconds. You'll also need a logbook and a pen.

Right. Equipment? Check! Now, let's move on the preparation and workouts we're going to follow in order to pass the CPAT with flying colors.

I recommend a program that breaks your CPAT preparation down into three parts. Part one concerns pure cardiovascular ability and endurance. Here the focus is on increasing your cardiovascular ability, performance and endurance. Part two concerns muscular strength and endurance. In this part the focus should be on increasing strength and muscular endurance. Part three concerns the specific tasks that must be performed to pass the CPAT. In this part you will carry out simulated versions of the 8 tasks that are required of fire fighter candidates in order to see how well you stack up. If you fail this simulated test, it's just as good as if you failed the CPAT itself.

All three parts will be performed in tandem in order to get you to pass the test as soon as possible. Cardio and weight workouts will be performed on alternating days, with at least two CPAT simulations per week. On a CPAT day, no other workouts will be performed. You'll know you're ready to take the test on the day you pass the CPAT in the allotted time and according to the correct procedures.

All three parts of your preparation require you to measure and log your progress. This is of the utmost importance and must not be overlooked. It is only by measuring and logging our progress that we're able to see how well we're doing or if we're progressing or standing still.

There are some parts of the CPAT for which no amount of cardio or weight training will help. I refer specifically to the tunnel maze test. This test requires you to fight and/or suppress your fear of small, tight spaces. If you are claustrophobic this test will be a real challenge for you. In order to prepare I recommend that you find a small space and progressively spend more and more time in this space until you learn how to calm yourself down and focus. Confront your fears head on and learn how to beat them.

We'll split our weeks in the following manner. Mondays and Thursdays will be for cardio training. Tuesdays and Fridays for weight training. Wednesdays and Saturdays are for the actual CPAT test itself and Sundays are rest days.

Before you start with any training, you need to take the CPAT just as you are now. This must be done in order to correctly estimate where you stand and how much work you need to perform. Set up your own CPAT course in the following manner:

1. To prepare for the step test, find a stair climbing machine in your gym, or a long staircase. The step test requires you to climb steps at a 60 steps per minute (or 1 step per second) cadence, for three minutes. Therefore, your first exercise will be to step 180 steps or more in three minutes while wearing your 50 lb weighted harness or backpack. You must step for the entire 3 minutes. Note how many steps you complete in the allotted time. Rest for 20 seconds while walking about.

2. For the hose drag test, add enough weight to a dragging platform or your object of choice so that the entire thing weighs approximately 288 pounds (this represents a 200 feet section of hose filled with water) (288 lb = 128 kg). Drag this weight behind you as fast as you can for a distance of 100 feet (about 30.5 m), then turn around, get down on your knee and pull the weight with your arms for a further 50 feet (15 m). Do this as fast as you can, while wearing your weighted harness or backpack. Attempt to complete the test, no matter how long it takes. Note the time it took for you to complete. Rest for 20 seconds while walking about.

3. A industrial power saw, used by fire fighters weighs approximately 22.9 lb (about 10 kg) ( For this test you need two 10 kg dumbbells, or 25 lb dumbbells or anything of similar weight. The dumbbells must be placed on an elevated platform that is about 1.7 m high. Now, remove the weights on by one and place them on the ground. Then bend downwards, pick them up, one in each hand, and carry these to a spot 75 feet (23 m) away. Place them down again and one by one pick them up and place them on an 1.7 m elevated platform again. This must be performed with your weighted suit on. Walk about for 20 seconds after the test.

4. To perform the ladder test, if you have a 21 foot ladder lying around somewhere, that will be excellent, but otherwise, you'll have to simulate the ladder lift with smaller weights and a specific exercise. Begin this test with a set of dumbbells or similar weights. While holding them overhead, perform a shoulder piston press with and alternating lunge, like in the clip below.

A 21 foot ladder has approximately one rung per foot, therefore you need to perform 42 continuous reps of this exercise to simulate the upwards and downwards movement of the ladder. Usually a ladder is not very heavy, so a set of 5 kg dumbbells may be adequate to start with. Obviously, the heavier the weight you can use, the better. Perform this test with your full weighted gear and note the time it takes to complete all 42 reps. Take a walk for 20 seconds afterwards.

5. To simulate the forcible entry test, take a sledgehammer (or your equivalent) and hit an object 10 to 20 times as hard as you can. The forcible entry test requires that you hit with a certain amount of force. We won't be able to simulate this force in the gym of outside, therefore a number of reps will be performed in order to build up our strength. Note the time it takes to hit between 10 to 20 reps. As always, do this while wearing your 50 lb gear. Rest for 20 seconds afterwards.

6. The rescue test is performed in the same way as the hose drag test. In this case you need to add 165 lb (73 kg) to your dragging platform. The platform must be dragged 35 foot on one direction (10.5 m), then another 35 foot in the opposite direction. Wear full gear and rest for 20 seconds afterwards.

7. For the final test, I recommend that you add some weights to one side of a weightlifting bar. This bar is to be your pike. Now, with the bar in hand, with an explosive movement, lift it up and over your head quickly, as if you were trying to poke a hole into a burning ceiling. The weight is to be at the top. Keep the bar and weight at the top for a couple of seconds and then lower it again. This is one thrust of the pike. Do the required amount to pass the CPAT test. It'll be very helpful if you can increase the weight at the top of your bar.. 

If you don't have a weightlifting bar, you'll need to improvise by using a pole with a weight fixed to the top. This weight may be a stone, a brick, a pail of sand, anything with enough weight that may simulate a pike being pushed through a burning ceiling.

In order to simulate the pulling of the pike, simple pull ups or lat pull down exercises will do. If you can do enough unassisted pull ups, as much as the CPAT requires, then you'll probably not struggle with the test.

The above is your CPAT circuit. Do this twice weekly and note your time. You need to show improvements if you want to make it as a fire-fighter one day.

On the other days of the week, those during which you do your cardio and strength training, I recommend a great post I wrote about training and nutrition: A practical guide to losing fat and gaining lean muscle mass

With these tools, you should have no problem passing the CPAT test one day, to become a great fire fighter. You now know how to eat, how to train and how to perform your CPAT to be able to pass with flying colors.

Remember that the CPAT has been designed to SIMULATE actual occurrences during emergencies. You need to keep in mind that the actual emergency will be many times more strenuous than a CPAT. If red hot fires are blazing around you, smoke obstructs your vision and victims all cry out for your help, your heart rate and physical and mental states will all contribute to your performance. Adrenalin will pump through your veins and raise your heart rate and you'll have to make difficult decisions that may cost your or someone else's life. This can potentially pre-fatigue you so that when push comes to shove, you're not able to perform adequately. It is therefore that I recommend that you do your workouts and preparation in such a manner as to completely obliterate the CPAT. 

Don't perform just the bare minimum in order to pass the test. Remember that people's lives are at stake, as well as your own. Try to get better than the test, try to become stronger, fitter and leaner. And if you pass the test, don't stop your workouts. Keep on going strong and attempt to get better and better. One day your fitness and endurance levels may save someone's life. And that's an encouraging thought!

If you yourself aspire to become a fire fighter some day, to be able to save lives and become a hero, then give this training plan a go. See if you can qualify to make your dreams a reality.

The CPAT test is also a great workout program in it's own right. You can get a great workout if you perform a CPAT test every two or three days. And the best part is, its only 10 minutes long and you can do it at home even. Enough for you to remain healthy and fit without having to go to the gym.

I sincerely hope that if you plan on becoming a fire fighter, this plan may be right for you. May you be successful and reach all your goals.

Until next time friends, STAY TRUE AND TRAIN HARD!

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