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Ala. FD implements required annual fitness tests

“Our ultimate goal is the safety of the employees,” Decatur Fire Chief Tracy Thornton said about the new, job-related testing


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By Bayne Hughes
The Decatur Daily

DECATUR, Ala. — Firefighters with Decatur Fire & Rescue will soon be tested on whether they can swing a sledgehammer, drag tires, climb and descend a tower, do a pipe crawl and five other challenges meant to test their readiness for the job.

The Personnel Board approved last week Fire Chief Tracy Thornton’s proposal to implement a new fitness test that firefighters must pass to remain on active duty.

Thornton said Henry Williford, a professor in Auburn University’s Kinesiology Department, certified the new fitness test as a job-task readiness assessment.

“We want our people to physically be able to do the job they’re going out and doing every day,” Thornton said.

The chief said they set up a course for the firefighters to take once a year. Williford then certified the course and tailored it to Decatur Fire & Rescue’s needs.

“It reflects all of the job tasks that we do,” Thornton said.

Thornton said the department had a physical course that firefighters had to pass in the past, but it wasn’t certified and they haven’t had a test in recent years.

“Hopefully, we can keep our people in good shape and ready to do the job they’re supposed to do,” the chief said.

Thornton said they did two years of assessments on what the firefighters could do on each of nine challenges along the course. Williford then signed off on the completion times.

The course includes challenges like 40 sledge hammer swings, a tire drag, a tower ascent/descent and a pipe crawl. The rules say a firefighter must complete two laps on one full bottle of compressed air. Williford’s assessment says they each have to complete the course in 12 minutes.

Thornton said 97% completed the course under the 12 minutes. Five firefighters couldn’t complete it and two didn’t finish within the required time.

He said some firefighters completed the test in less than four minutes.

“Some treated this test like it was a competition,” Thornton said.

Thornton said they already do things throughout the year to be sure the crews are ready for the test.

“Actually, what they do on a monthly basis is a little harder than this (annual) test is,” Thornton said. “It’s not like we pop up once a year and say hey we’re going to do this. We try to prepare them throughout the year.”

If a firefighter can’t pass the assessment, Thornton said the employee won’t be fired. The rule says there would be a performance improvement plan for the employee. This person would also be assigned to a non-emergency job until he or she could pass the assessment, he said.

“Our goal is for everybody to finish the course on time,” the chief said.


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Fitness testing for first responders

Many agencies shy away from fitness testing for first responders, but annual tests can gauge the health and occupational readiness of your personnel

Temporary exceptions or substitutions of job tasks can be made on a case-by-case basis if needed. First, they will be scheduled for a retest in seven to 14 days. If a second test is unsuccessful, the department will be placed on limited duty status — taken off active duty of being on a fire truck responding to calls — and will begin a fit-for-duty process through the Human Resources Department.

If an injury or physical impairment persists, the crew member will be redirected to a doctor. The training staff will set up a training regimen so the firefighter can pass the test and return to full-duty status.

“If you can’t pass this test, we don’t want you to go out in real-life situations and have to face those circumstances,” Thornton said. “Our ultimate goal is the safety of the employees. We want them to be physically able to do a physically demanding job.”

Thornton said the department has jobs where a physical test need not be taken in administration, finance and fire marshal’s investigation and inspections.

He said the people in these administrative jobs “don’t have to pass the test but they’re encouraged to do it.” However, they have to complete the previous year’s test for a promotion that would put them back out responding to emergencies, Thornton said.

Thornton said there are people who got promoted, volunteered or were hired into a role in a non-emergency job. He said they can move people around to fit employees in who couldn’t pass the test, but the department is limited in the number of openings it has.

Personnel Board member Pam Werstler said she thinks the new test “is great” and she’s glad the department has a way for employees to retake and pass the test.

“If they’re not where they need to be, they put the public at risk and themselves at risk,” Werstler said.

However, Werstler said the number of available jobs could be an issue in the future if the worst-case scenario occurs and a high number of firefighters don’t pass the test.

The chief said serving in administration “is not a coveted spot” in his department so he’s confident that won’t be a problem.

“Most people want to be on the fire truck,” Thornton said. “I’m sure people will be able to pass this test and, if they’re not, I hope we can quickly get them in position so they can pass this test.

“The overwhelming part of this is I would rather hope that I don’t have to deal with that than put people out there who aren’t physically and mentally able to do their jobs and they’re just hoping they can just skate by.”

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