Tuesday, August 30, 2011
From Whence Came the Challenge?
For the uninitiate (a person unfamiliar with a specific topic or subject) upon first seeing the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge, the likely question: “What is this and where did it come from?“ Good questions, both.
Back in the dark ages of personnel selection, fire chiefs believed that big(ger) people tended to excel at the avocation. Ergo, there were minimum height and weight standards. No one considered that women would ever want a career in this most male of occupations. Disparate impact was an unfamiliar term in those days. So, in 1975, Chief David Gratz who was the director of fire-rescue service for Montgomery County (MD) and Dr. Leonard Marks paid us a visit at the Sports Medicine Center of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, Department of Kinesiology. They wanted to know if there was a way to measure what it took to, for example, climb a ladder and chop a hole in a roof. “Sure,” we remarked.
FEMA was still a distant gleam in someone’s eye, but the formation of what would become the National Fire Administration was gaining some traction. This new agency under the Department of Commerce would have money to fund research. A research proposal was cobbled together and submitted with the backing of our US Senator, J. Glen Beall. For the modest sum of $87,216 we embarked on a project that would become the first study to link empirically physical performance constructs with simulated job tasks for structural firefighters.
One-hundred greater Washington area firefighters were randomly selected by age and political jurisdiction strata and underwent laboratory-based tests for aerobic and anaerobic kinetics as well as other demographic data. The results were correlated against performance on a series of linked fire ground evolutions. Technically, we used mutliple-regresson and canonical correlation to create a model of success. In other words, a profile of fitness that could predict performance on frequently performed, non-skill dependent, arduous fire suppression tasks.
The Criterion Tasks were nominated by the Training Officers subcommittee of the COG Fire Chiefs Committee. These tasks were corroborated through surveys and have been replicated in numerous jurisdictions across the US. The objective was to focus on a core of Essential Functions that were ubiquitous to the fire service, much like hanging a door would be for carpentry. Local jurisdictions might feel strongly that they would want to add logical accessories such as the ability to swim where water was a part of the first due equation.
Morphing into what would ultimately become the Essential Functions Test (EFT), hundreds of fire departments across the nation in the early 90’s were signing on for the use of the “Combat Test” as a selection, or in some cases, retention test. In 1991 we held our first Washington, DC Council of Governments (COG) sponsored competition at the Maryland Fire-Rescue Institute. Never intended as a race, but rather as a personnel selection instrument, the EFT received kudos as being age and sex neutral (in other words, age and sex were not factors in scoring). But, you know how firefighters can be and speed to completion ignited a game.
The general premise in personnel selection is that your natural abilities can take you wherever you wish to go. The Constitution of the United States affords you with equal opportunity. The results are on you. This called the Merit System- the novel idea of hiring people based upon objective data.
With the rapidly ascending popularity of the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge, the major focus of our efforts became the fine tuning of an International Sports competition. For several years, the great unanswered question was, “Can someone actually do this under 2:00?” Mind you, most firefighters would walk through the course in around five minutes. The very practical application of the EFT has been overshadowed by the 10-year run on ESPN, and the 20-years of a 24-stop annual US tour. There are still departments that require their personnel to walk through the course each year. The measurable benefits are increased safety by reducing line-of-duty musculo-skeletal injuries by fielding a fit workforce. Sounds like a plan to me. No one in our shop ever thought that these insane times would become the de rigueur.
Hopefully, this little tutorial might clear up some misconceptions that continue to linger on the still current and compelling need for physically fit firefighters.