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Tactical Team Physical Fitness Standards

Written by Kathleen Vonk

Tactical Team Physical Standards
Creating, Maintaining, and Continuously Improving Physical Readiness Standards

There are many different tactical-team physical tests that exist across the country today. However, very few have been validated and deemed to be job task specific. While good intended, most tactical team members or leaders just don't know how to arrive at appropriate standards, and only have "gym knowledge" when running team fitness sessions.

The best case scenario for not only optimal applicability but also defensibility, is to have your own task analysis completed to determine and support the testing events and procedure. This will validate what you are doing and why, without wasting valuable time, money, and resources on implementing a test-simply because other teams are using it, or because the military is using it.

Police tactical team operators do not perform the same functions as military combat operators.  Although the armed forces lay the proper groundwork and conduct task analysis studies to determine their standards, military tests don't necessarily apply to police tactical teams.

A validation study will make sure that what is being tested is proper, at the appropriate level, and for the right reasons-therefore more defensible and somewhat insulated from being challenged.  Nothing is litigation proof, but some steps can be taken to minimize the chances. The important factor is determining those on the team are capable of performing the required tasks.

Tasks required to be successful at operating on a team must first be identified, and these tasks may not be the same in every area. An easy example is that in most cases, hostage negotiators may be considered part of the team; however, are not required to take and pass the same physical task test the rest of the team does. Why? Because they are not required to dress in full tactical gear, make their way through backyards, alleyways, or rooftops to reach their position, and they are not likely to breech a door and make an entry.

So, the test should be appropriate for the tasks required, and should determine whether the person is able to perform the tasks or not. Whether operators must be able to perform in a variety of positions, or whether certain functions are operator-specific, have the potential to affect the tasks and standards. If this is the case, a team's fitness program design can be modified to not only include the common tasks that all operators must be able to perform, but also those specific to each operator's position on the team.

For example, a door breacher must have the ability to develop core rotational power while not only carrying extra weight on his / her body, but also accelerate the ram (resistance) at the end of the arms (biomechanical levers). Exercises can be included in that operator's fitness program to maximize torque against resistance.

Norms adjusted for age and gender have no place on tactical team standards, because every team member must be able to perform the common tasks required by all. Every team member must be able to perform at the determined minimum level, while carrying extra weight in the form of tactical and protective gear, shoot well on the move, or if deemed essential, partake in a rescue-whether the downed person is a civilian weighing 115 pounds or a 270-pound tactical officer including full gear (whichever tactic is used by your team).

Determining Essential Tasks and Minimum Standards
Task identification and minimum ability required to perform these tasks can be done by using several similar teams (demographics, call load, team construction, etc.) or by using numerous teams across the country, but even these methods assume those teams are using valid events.  The "Gold Standard" is to use entities that have the personnel and tools to conduct a direct task analysis for your region. Some examples include FitForce, the police training standards organization within each state (POST), or a university in the immediate area.

Matt Brzycki and Stuart Meyers, while writing their SWAT Fitness book published in 2003 by Optac International, examined fitness standards used by teams in the United States at that time. They pointed out that many teams were using pushups and situps even though they were not job related. They also pointed out that many tests used age and gender norms, "providing preferential treatment for female or older officers."

To age and gender norm, fitness standards makes no sense for the police and fire professions, especially for military and police tactical teams. Lives are at stake in all of the aforementioned careers, and the ability of each and every officer, firefighter, and tactical team operator is paramount whether they are male or female, young or "mature." Work the street-do the job.

According to Jay Smith of FitForce, standards must meet certain requirements as set forth in the prevailing anti-discrimination legislation / litigation record, the EEO Guidelines (Equal Employment Opportunity) and the SIOP standards (Society of Industrial Organization of Psychology. The SIOP is one of the "gold" standards in occupational testing). Unfortunately, there is a mistaken belief that because tactical team membership is voluntary, the agency won't be challenged on their standards. While it practically may be so, that isn't a green light to arbitrarily adopt requirements, which leave the agency in an indefensible position. All employment standards must meet two requirements. The standards must be demonstrably job-related and the standards must be consistent with business necessity. At all times, you must begin with the demands (in this case, the physical demands) of the occupational classification. Selection and training must then be crafted to ensure safe and effective performance at a minimal level. This is one of the principle reasons age  and gender adjusted standards are both illogical and illegal: There can only be one minimum standard that is job-related. In the case of adjusted standards, you have eight or 10 or 12 standards, not one minimum standard. Typically, job-relatedness is established in a validation study conducted consistent with the above requirements. The documentation of the validation procedure is the final report. Such a study should be conducted by individuals qualified to defend their methods in court."

Physical Training Supervisors
Due to the potential for physical injury and even death, the fitness industry is a very high liability arena. Those who conduct any type of physical training should have the proper education and training to do so-no exceptions. We don't allow anyone without firearms instructor certification to teach us pistol skills, why would we allow this? Strength and conditioning professionals do not achieve excellence without investing in themselves financially, academically, and through quality hands-on experience.

Many spend thousands of dollars to educate themselves and righteously earn their positions, and they would not have been hired without that substantial investment into their expertise and continuous education. Considering all of the money spent on tactical team training and equipment, NOT spending the money to have qualified personnel conducting fitness sessions and testing could be considered negligent.

Simply put, not making this a priority because you didn't know what the industry standards were will never be defensible-especially when the day arrives when one of your team members goes to the hospital with life-threatening rhabdomyolysis, heat stroke, or any another exercise related injury that could have been prevented had the training been supervised by a qualified individual.

Seek someone with a degree in Exercise Science, Exercise Physiology, Kinesiology, Human Movement, Physical Education, Athletic Training, or a similar degree. In addition to this, the individual should hold a credible certification such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), LouKa Tactical Police Wellness Instructor (PWI), USA Weightlifting (USAW) certification, National Association of Sports Medicine (NASM), FitForce, or similar.

Be wary of "certifications" that are obtained by paying a fee and receiving a certificate through the mail, through online testing only, and with no educational and practical component required.  Unless there are educational prerequisites, be careful of using short classes (three days or less) that would be hard pressed to effectively cover all of the necessary material to prepare that person to implement fitness testing and design fitness programs. It is extremely risky to allow someone with no educational background, or someone with no fitness credentials to design, implement, and direct team fitness sessions.

Recovery Heart Rate
Heart rate data is objective and unequivocal. It could be argued to take a step further, and incorporate resting and / or recovery heart rate into operator testing. Even though it may be unrealistic to have tactical team operators run 1.5 miles in full gear, the strength of the cardiovascular system is extremely important for a team member.

As one of many examples, the cardiovascular system of an operator must be able to handle and recover from performing during a five-hour operation in 95 degree heat and 90 percent humidity.  The effects of heat stress on the cardiovascular system have long been documented; however, it is hard to relate some of the cardiovascular endurance testing to a required SWAT task such as the 1.5 mile run within 12 minutes-especially when few operators have ever done this on an actual operation. Recovery heart rate offers a solution to this potential dilemma.

Information obtained from exercise physiologist Tricia Sterland of Polar Electro, Inc., supports the utilization of recovery heart rate. She added that it will be more certain that the officer cannot only handle the required physical task, but also recover from it without adverse consequences.  "Utilizing an exact number of beats per minute for heart rate recovery could be difficult based upon where the peak heart rate was for the task at hand.

A common rule of thumb is that a drop of 30 to 35 bpm occurs for those who are very physically fit. In contrast, a recovery of 12 bpm or fewer could be a sign of cardiovascular issues." Applying this information to operator physical task testing might include a 25 bpm drop in heart rate within one minute of completing the task.

Another option is to conduct preliminary testing to include resting heart rate, blood pressure, and recovery heart rate prior to physical fitness testing. This is the norm in the fitness industry today.  According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the average resting heart rate range is 66 to 71 beats per minute for men and 68 to 72 beats per minute for women. Any value between 60 and 100 is considered normal. Requiring resting heart rate to be within this "normal" range, as well as conducting a simple recovery heart rate screening test such as the Cooper Institute Three-Minute Step Test, is a simple addition to any tactical team physical testing protocol.

Using resting and recovery heart rate has the potential to raise a red flag and possibly reveal underlying issues before they result in tragedy. One need only to visit the Officer Down Memorial Page (www.odmp.org ) to realize that officers who have died on duty from myocardial infarction (MI or heart attack) have been physically exerting themselves whether during a forcible arrest, foot pursuit, and yes-during physical fitness testing.

In most cases, only with a consistent and effective cardiovascular training program will "normal" resting and recovery heart rate be observed, or improvements made. This element of tactical team testing will require operators to achieve and maintain healthy cardiovascular systems without requiring a 1.5 mile run during testing.

Finally, whether it's your TacMed physician or the local EMT service, having emergency medical assistance in the immediate area during physical testing is easy to achieve in most cases, and is recommended.

It will pay off in the long run to spend the money and have an applicable task analysis done by a reputable organization, and to implement an appropriate and defensible standard. Follow this up with having adequately educated and trained personnel implement the testing, and involve them in both team and individual program design. Taking the "easy" way out by using someone else's standard "because others are doing it," and by using an unqualified leader for the team's fitness sessions may set your team and agency up for preventable injuries and death, negative public opinion, and litigation.

SIDEBAR:
Sample Job-Related Physical Test

The following is a sample compiled from several different tests currently used. However, this is only an example and the parameters have been deleted (distance, time, height of obstacle, weight of buddy), as they may not apply to your team. For example, if a team requires each operator to negotiate a 6-foot privacy fence when there are only 4-foot-high chain link fences in that jurisdiction, the event may not necessarily apply. It is still recommended that a task analysis be done to determine the events and standards for each team. An actual door breach as well as shooting accuracy can be incorporated at the completion of one or more events.

*         Pullup(s) in full gear, palms out (as though grabbing a window sill or fence)

*         Low crawl in full gear, including long gun

*         Ascending stairs in full gear, including long gun or breeching tool

*         Climb up and over a fence in full gear (height determined by what's in your jurisdiction)

*         Buddy rescue in full gear

*         Jump off / step down a platform as high as your tactical vehicle, fast walk or run in full gear including weapon

*         Task-specific obstacle course in full gear, or have the preceding events occur in a consecutive format with a required finish time, such as with the CPAT (Candidate Physical Ability Test) for firefighters (http://www.iaff.org/hs/CPAT/cpat_index.html)


Kathleen Vonk is an officer with the Ann Arbor, MI, Police. She holds a BA in Criminal Justice and a BS in Exercise Physiology. She has spent the last 11 years patrolling and teaching on a bicycle. She has been an active member of the IPMBA Governing Board for the last six years and is currently serving as vice president. She can be reached at: kathyvonk@aol.com. Join us for the 14th Annual IPMBA Conference, May 1-8, 2004, in San Antonio, Texas. Photos by Kathleen Vonk.

Published in Tactical Response, Sep/Oct 2012

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