Fitness testing – a necessary Good?
Back in 2009, I was 45, had served 22 years as an Operational Firefighter, and was (JUST) passing the one mandatory fitness test a year to stay employed.
This was a bleep test, and I needed to hit 8.0 to pass it, but could look forward to that dropping to 7.2 between the ages of 46 and 50, and then 6.4 between 51 and 55 – during which time I would retire, so no real worries there. I had developed a bit of a middle aged spread and had let my exercise regime slip, so it came as a massive shock when my employer (Humberside Fire and Rescue Service) decided that every Firefighter had to pass the bleep test at level 8.7, twice a year, NO MATTER WHAT AGE THEY WERE.
I knew that I would struggle to pass it as I was, let alone later on when I was older still, so naturally was outraged at the injustice of this decision … How could this be fair or reasonable ? People get older and the ravages of time, and past activities (sport) take their toll on a human body... not to mention the accumulation of beer and pizzas too. How could they expect me to pass the test at 53 at the same level as a new entrant into the profession, say aged 23?
Despite my resentment, forthright and outspoken opposition to this policy, along with that of many of my peers, it was introduced, and to keep my job I had to change my approach to fitness. Exercise … something I had NEVER enjoyed, became a necessary evil. I had to pick activities that didn’t damage me further or exacerbate injuries already brought about by repetitive impact year after year whilst I was younger, but I managed it. 3 times a week, every week, I forced myself to do 30 minutes of something that got me sweating hard and the cardio levels improving – swimming, cycling, uphill walking on the treadmill to name but a few. I am now fitter at 52 than I was at 45, and by quite some considerable margin.
I still don’t enjoy it if I am honest, but my opposition has dissolved away, and in its place there is now a firm belief that this is absolutely the right approach for my employer to take and for me to adopt in order that I am fit for the job I do, and more importantly for the life I lead, not only at present, but also for the one which I hope to lead long after I retire.
Working in extreme heat, wearing a BA set whilst dragging hose or carrying other equipment, often up many flights of stairs, or rescuing casualties is hugely physically demanding, and I know I have massively reduced the chances of suffering a cardiac arrest myself because of my exercise regime (something I could be more prone to the older I get), taken along with relatively sensible eating to assist with my weight control.
Even as a Union representative (and as such a regular opponent of Management policy) with the above in mind, and despite the fact that the physical training isn’t ever easy, I do see the benefits of this testing, and particularly as I have got older.
The bottom line is that fires (or our working conditions) do not discriminate …. Why should the test be easier for the older members of the workforce, if the conditions they have to work in are the same as for their younger colleagues.
I am now convinced that my employer has made a risk based, conscious, life-saving decision for its employees to personally benefit from by imposing fitness standards widely regarded by the Sector as the Benchmark, for me and the rest of its workforce to pass so we may function safely in our role. Without a single one of us losing our job over it, they have massively reduced the quite significant percentage of overweight mid-to-late career firefighters within our Service (heart attacks ‘waiting to happen’ you may say) down to very low single figures, and that will in turn (if all the current medical evidence is to be believed) hopefully ensure that no one loses their life to the rigors of this job through a cardiac arrest brought on by it.
This article was written by a Dave Huzzard, Watch Manager, Hull Community Protection Unit, Humberside Fire and Rescue Service, United Kingdom, and was provided to us by Deputy Fire Chief Chris Blacksell of Humberside Fire and Rescue.