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Lessons from a Voluntary Fitness Program

 

It is essential that police officers from coast to coast maintain a high level of fitness and readiness. The physical challenges of law enforcement can be many, such as controlling combative subjects, engaging in foot pursuits and working long hours on major incidents. Those duties could include everything from dragging a heavy object off of the interstate, to struggling with a combative drunk. It is certainly no small feat to strap on a 30-pound tactical vest and run up three flights of stairs in a simulated training scenario.

At the same time, years of shift work, rotating schedules, fast food and spending eight to 12 hours in a patrol car can take a toll on the body. And while officers continue to age in years, the age of the typical offender remains young. These are all reminders that a police officer must maintain top physical condition to safely serve and protect.

Recognizing these challenges, the Town and Country, MO Police Department began a fitness program for its officers in 1992. They sent an officer to the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas to be certified as a law enforcement fitness instructor and to set up a “fit” program. Since its inception, two other officers have also been certified at the Institute and carried on the program. After 17 years of assessments and emphasis, fitness is now part of the department’s culture.

Some key components need to be considered when starting a police fitness program. These include: mandatory versus voluntary participation, program orientation (fitness versus job task), instructor selection, workout facilities, on-duty time, health screens and the use of incentives.

Mandatory Programs

The decision of whether to go mandatory or institute a voluntary program must be made by the agency head in light of the fiscal and political environments, both locally and state-wide. Mandatory programs can be very successful in terms of implementation and “fit for duty” performance, and they are legally defensible if implemented correctly. This will typically require a personnel organization to conduct a validated job task analysis which identifies essential functions.

A fitness battery can then be developed to ensure that candidates or officers can safely and effectively perform those job functions. This process can be quite expensive, but the long term benefits far outweigh the initial cost. The process for mandatory programs has been addressed in other LAW and ORDER articles, so the focus of this article will be on implementing a voluntary program.

Voluntary Programs

A voluntary program has some of the benefits of mandatory performance standards. In this case, officers are required to participate in the semi- annual assessments, but compliance with standards is voluntary. Benefits include an accurate assessment of an officer’s ability to perform the physical functions of the job, and an increased individual awareness of the importance of fitness and wellness.

The program can be a forum for fitness and health education and could result in decreased sick leave, disability use and workers’ compensation claims. Finally, the result can be a more professional looking department, with fewer overweight and out-of-shape officers.

The most significant limitation of voluntary compliance programs, as compared to validated programs with mandatory standards, is that they cannot be used for employment decisions. Therefore, you may reach 90 percent of your organization, but there are some officers who, either by laziness or disability, refuse or are unable to comply with the fitness standards.

With this limitation, you will have to be satisfied with the impact upon the 90 percent that can and do put forth the effort. A law enforcement agency can be successful in achieving and maintaining a good level of fitness for the majority of officers with a voluntary program.

Instructor Selection

Formal law enforcement-oriented fitness instructor training is a must. Fitness specialist programs are offered at many of the major training facilities across the country. Selection of the officer who will carry the banner of fitness for an agency is perhaps the key element in building a successful program. It is preferable to choose an officer who will not only set the example in fitness, nutrition and wellness, but who also has the ability to effectively instruct others.

Stay away from extremes; you neither want the fit fanatic who spends three hours a day in the gym and eats locusts and honey, nor the couch potato who “talks” fitness but cannot make it around the track. The acceptance and credibility of your program rests, in large part, with the selection of the fitness specialist.

Program Orientation

With a voluntary compliance program, a general fitness assessment is recommended. Examples include: a 1.5-mile run (cardiovascular), push ups and/or one max bench press (strength), sit-ups (core strength) and the standing jump test (explosive power). This fitness battery will provide good feedback, not only on officers’ physiological readiness, but also on overall fitness.

A task-oriented program (obstacle course) typically includes a short run, climbing stairs, scaling a fence, dragging a heavy dummy and a brief defensive tactics application. While this orientation may be appropriate for a mandatory program, the likelihood of injury goes up, and it is not an accurate measurement of overall fitness.

Screening for Safe Participation

The Town and Country PD uses both formal and informal screening measures to ensure that those officers participating in fitness assessments can do so safely. A local medical center conducts an annual screening of all officers. Nursing staff go to the police station four times to catch all shifts. They conduct a wellness questionnaire to determine lifestyle risk factors and nutrition habits, and a blood lipid profile to determine cholesterol and triglyceride levels. They also get values for resting blood pressure and heart rate.

A cardiologist at the medical center then reviews the results of the health screen and determines which officers can participate in the field assessment and which officers should be assessed in a medical environment. The department pays $35 per officer for the screening and the cardiologist’s recommendations. This report only contains the officer’s classification for exercise participation, not the specific results of the medical screening.

Officers who are not recommended for participation in the field assessment are then assigned a date to go to the medical center. Here they participate in a treadmill stress test that determines their aerobic capacity, along with a fitness battery that consists of sit-ups and push-ups. With assessments conducted in both field and medical settings, potential participation in the fitness assessment is 100 percent. The medical center also provides a confidential report to each officer with tips to improve areas identified in the medical screening that indicate a potential risk for coronary artery disease.

On the day of the assessment, the fitness instructor individually (informally) screens each officer for his ability to safely participate; this screening includes a brief questionnaire and blood pressure check. There have been times when officers were cleared by the medical center screening several months prior, but on the day of assessment, their blood pressure registered too high to participate. These officers are either rescheduled or referred to their personal physicians for a follow up.

At other times, officers are not cleared for specific elements of the assessment. For example, if an officer has an ankle injury, he is prohibited from participating in the standing jump test and the run until his condition improves. While full participation is desired, knowingly aggravating an existing condition could be counterproductive and derail a program.

Facilities

The City of Town and Country invested in fitness equipment in the early 90s so that all city employees would have access to a quality fitness center. The center contains free weights, a four-weight stack universal machine, dumbbells, two treadmills, a stationary bike and a few other aerobic options.

The push-ups, sit-ups and standing jump test are conducted in this facility. Officers then travel less than a mile to a local high school track for the 1.5-mile run. The City of Town and Country signed a Hold Harmless Agreement that was required by the school to minimize its liability risk for allowing the use of its track. Several other local high schools are also available and do not require any formal agreement.

Incentives

For the first 15 years of the program, the Town and Country PD offered few incentives for successful completion of the assessment. The operations captain got creative for a few years and offered the “Captain’s Challenge” in which he would work a shift for any officer who could surpass his overall average fitness score. While he gets an “A” for effort, his method only provided a real incentive for those officers who were already relatively fit.

However, several years ago two lieutenants suggested that adding incentives might breathe new life into the fitness program. The chief approved eight hours of comp time for officers who passed all four components of the assessment, and surprisingly, this positive incentive added a motivating factor that the voluntary program otherwise lacked. The amount of officers passing all four components increased to more than 90 percent from the 75 percent passing rate prior to the incentive.

On-Duty Workouts

While courts have not required agencies to provide on-duty workout time or facilities when implementing mandatory programs, both can aid overall participation in a fitness program. Town and Country provides two hours per week of on-duty workout time. While it is recognized that officers should exercise more than two hours weekly, this mandated time sends the message to officers that they also need to commit some of their own time to maintaining their fitness for duty.

Officers must obtain supervisory approval prior to working out, and they must sign a log in the fitness center. This is a way of monitoring the amount of time spent working out on-duty, but it is also because of a workers’ comp requirement.

There have been workers’ comp claims as a result of workouts in the fitness center, stemming from causes such as strained muscles, minor muscle pulls and knee injuries. Claims should be expected, but they should also be more than off-set by healthier officers who use less sick time and can return to work more quickly when injured on the street.

It Starts at the Top

To be most effective, a fitness program must have the support of the chief and the command staff. This support should be reflected not only in the implementation and promotion of the program, but also in the participation of the command staff. It is humorous when the overweight physician chastises his patient for poor health habits. But it is hypocritical and contradictory when the obese chief or captain gives lip service to a fitness program without participating himself.

When the command staff takes “fit for duty” seriously, officers are more likely to do so as well. Chiefs and commanders should examine their own level of fitness and realize that it is unrealistic to expect a commitment from their officers which exceeds their own. Captains and lieutenants running alongside their officers on assessment day lend a lot of legitimacy to an agency’s program.

While many issues and questions will arise with the implementation of a fitness program, it is well worth the effort, both for the officers and the communities they serve. Time and money must be invested for the selection and training of an instructor, assessments, equipment and medical screening. Yet, an agency’s investment in a program is an investment in the health and fitness of its officers, and the dividends will far exceed the investment.

Gary Hoelzer is the commander of the operations division of the Town and Country Police Department. He received training at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas and has taught fitness courses for the St. Louis County & Municipal Police Academy. He may be reached at hoelzerga@town-and-country.org.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2010

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