Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Origin of the Firefighter Combat Challenge

The Firefighter Combat Challenge was born the day in 1974 that Chief David B. Gratz and Dr. Leonard Marks walked into the Human Performance Laboratory of the Sports Medicine Center at the University of Maryland. Chief Gratz, the Director of Fire/Rescue Services for Montgomery County (MD) wanted to know if it was, as he characterized it, “possible to measure what it took for a firefighter to climb a ladder and chop a hole in the roof.” Present on that auspicious occasion were Drs. Dotson, Santa Maria and Davis, faculty members of the Physical Education Department (the precursor to what would evolve to be the School of Public Health, Department of Kinesiology).

It would take the better part of a year to push the paperwork through the newly created US Fire Prevention and Control Administration (under the Department of Commerce). With the assistance of US Senator J. Glenn Beall, Jr., the University would receive a federal grant totally $87,216. A first of a kind, cooperative study sponsored by the Washington, DC Area Council of Governments (COG) included firefighters from the following political jurisdictions: D.C., Alexandria, Prince George’s, Montgomery, Arlington, and Fairfax. One-hundred randomly selected firefighters would undergo physiological testing for measures of muscular strength, endurance, power and aerobic fitness and body composition. Then they would take part in a simulation of structural fire suppression tasks: five sequentially performed evolutions- the precursor to the Firefighter Combat Challenge. A standpipe hose carry to the fifth floor, a hose hoist, a simulated dummy drag/rescue, a chopping simulation and a hose advance comprised the test battery.

Staggering the University researchers minds was the fact that approximately 15% of the firefighters who participated in the study were incapable of carrying the hose up the five flights of stairs. Fortunately, there were no cardiac events, having previously screened all of the participants on EKG treadmills tests in the lab (thereby eliminated several).

Not surprisingly, the data showed significant differences in the performance times and physiological responses to the tasks. The more fit firefighters completed the evolutions in half the time of the less fit. While all of this seems to be perfectly predictable, keep in mind that in 1975 & 76 the mindset of the fire service was in some circles, very much opposed to the idea of physical fitness. Fully 30% of the study sample were adjudged as being physically incapable of performing some of the most rudimentary tasks.

One most interesting side note to the study was that of Monte Finch, then a firefighter from Montgomery County, Monte posted one of the fastest times on the course: a blistering 4:15. Now, keep in mind that our instructions were to pace yourself, and perform the tasks as you would at the scene of a fire. The competitive nature of the outstanding firefighters would be lost on me for some years as you’ll see below.

In fact, the pervasive attitude was the working out could kill you. Such authoritative journals as Playboy ran stories about people dying after running or pushing weights. The level of ignorance was staggering. Many IAFF locals at the time took a firm stance of being opposed to the idea of being tested to see if they could perform their job, or working out to improve performance. The attitude was very much like “this is the way that God made me; there’s nothing you can do to change it.”

Our ground-breaking research was published in a number of trade and scientific journals, including a technical report by the US Government Printing Office. The idea that you could identify fitness dimensions that were predictive of job performance began to take hold. It would be 15 years before the concept of the Firefighter Combat Challenge would be born, again through another COG initiative, only this time as a friendly, spirited competition- and again held at the University of Maryland’s Fire-Rescue Institute (MFRI).

Monte Finch, now a battalion chief would come back some 15 years later, and post a time equal to his original. In fact, when Montgomery County would form their Combat Challenge Team, Chief Finch, the original coach would find himself on the team, beating out his son.

Thirty-three years later, I encounter from time-to-time firefighters who participated in the original study. Of course, virtually all of them are retired. And probably several are deceased. But it’s always a pleasure to have someone come up to me and say, “I was a guinea pig in your original research study.”

We’re into our second generation of Firefighter Combat Challenge competitors. We continue to have fathers racing their sons, or participating on the same team. Fitness has been determined to be the single most important part of survival. We talk constantly about “everyone goes home.” And certainly while that’s highly critical, I can’t help but notice that there’s a significant number of firefighters who should stay home. We’ll talk about this delicate subject in a future Blog.