Monday, February 25, 2008

From Chief Monte Fitch (ret)

Thank you Paul for your kind remarks towards my participation in then, the most advanced controlled physical challenge to the firefighters in the 1970's. Most understood the stress, physical exertion, overheating of the body, climate changes from warm bed to cold task of the tillerman on a snowy night, or from the A/C'ed station out into the humid hot summer heat to respond to an incident.

Heart attacks were accepted as part of the JOB.
You undertook a challenge to ask firefighters to try to do in a competitive / testing manner what they could possibly do most any day on the JOB and in some busy departments several times a day. The difference in your challenge they were being watched, timed, and evaluated on their work day skills.

You took this challenge in a time when smoking was a norm, diet consisted of SOS, bacon, eggs, hash browns for breakfast while they planned dinner that usually consisted of meat, potatoes, pasta, gravy, bread and a rich desert. In between we sometimes had time to have lunch.

As you mentioned physical fitness was almost unheard of and certainly not a part of the daily routine as it is today. Fitness also brought about healthy eating changes.

As I have mentioned in conversation, I truly feel that your work to develop the Combat Challenge while promoting physical fitness has given the firefighter a better chance to survive the hazards of the JOB. Your persistence in the face of many, including the IAFF who dismissed fitness of firefighters and the combat challenge was a waste of time. Yet you continued and are to be commended for your successful efforts.

It has taken many years, but through the spirit of "friendly competition" the Firefighter Combat Challenge became recognized as an event to participate in and to be proud of being one of those who bettered their time in the challenge.

As time passed and your dream and goal became reality to the fire service everywhere, the challenge has now become a standard to meet in order to be hired as a firefighter. It gave a new meaning to who can and should do the JOB. I still believe that if a person is unable to meet your standard we should question whether they should be on the JOB, because we all know after time if not challenged we lose our ability to do the "JOB" over the years then we becomes susceptible to injury and heart disease and less capable of helping our fellow firefighter when challenged in the heat of the battle.

I remember the first competition and subsequent events that I participated in like it was yesterday. I remember after the first competition at the U of MD and coming back and talking to Captain Richard Foster, our boss then, and telling him what we had to do. He came to the track at Sherwood High School and ran along with us and he says he remembers how tough it was to run the mile and half. From that day on and today after retirement he runs and exercises to keep in shape. Your work inspired many to become better at their JOB in a new area of fitness, just like we studied Building Codes from Brannigan or Fire Administration from Chief Gratz.

Thank you for your dedication, persistence and courage to make the fire service a safer and healthier place to work.
It gave many more a chance to come home to their families at the end of their shift.

Thanks for the chance to review your new Blog.

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.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Kick Off

As the amount of information about the Firefighter Combat Challenge grows, it’s appropriate that there be an authoritative source of accurate information on the Internet. Since first bursting on the scene some 18 years ago, the Firefighter Combat Challenge has attracted upwards of 20,000 firefighters. This Blog will attempt to respond to inquiries, provide new insights and interact with interested fans, competitors and others. 

Friday, February 15, 2008 
Paul O. Davis, Ph.D.