A glimpse behind the scenes at the intense physical preparation of Columbus’ police and firefighter recruits
A Baptism before Fire –
No one is ever quite ready for the heaviness of fire. It presses you down to the floor. The smoke rolls in waves, shrouding an unfamiliar house. There’s a person in there somewhere, probably unconscious, a hundred-something pounds of dead weight. You have 20 minutes of air. Maybe less.
The air comes from the bottle – the oxygen tank – strapped across your back. It’s rated for 45 minutes, but that’s under normal circumstances. You don’t breathe normal in a fire. You gulp. The more physically fit you are, the slower it depletes. An average person may only get 12 minutes of air; a firefighter needs 20 to 25.
It’s Week Seven of the Columbus Fire Training Academy for 38 recruits. The late-July sun beats down, but it’s nothing compared to the heat they will face after graduation this winter.
They use heat and humidity to their advantage. When the CFD Academy commences at the beginning of June, the instructors use all unscheduled time to take recruits outside for PT (physical training), like running and floor exercises. They need to attain a certain level of physical conditioning before they begin search-and-rescue training in Week Four, said Jim Ferris, the head of the PT program.
It’s vastly different than when he graduated the academy years ago.
“You [ran] a mile and a half, you did your jumping jacks and a couple floor exercises, and you were done,” he said. “Now it’s not like that. We changed a lot of things, and our workouts are designed for 35 to 45 minutes, and there’s no break, and we just basically mimic a fire scenario.”
They alternate workouts each day to keep everything fresh: several-mile runs, stair training, suicides, pushups, pull-ups and the Deck of Cards, in which each suit and number represents an exercise and an amount of reps. The program intensifies as time passes. The first six weeks are aimed at increasing cardio and cutting excess weight, and then in the seventh week they begin building back and shoulder strength. They flip massive tires in teams of two, while another set of recruits runs the stairs in a five-story concrete building.
During the seventh week of PT, they also begin incorporating firefighting gear – pants, jacket, boots and helmets. The suit is like a personal sauna and allows them to grow accustomed to the stress that heat places on the body. PT is not punishment, Ferris says. But it’s a punishing seven months.
The recruits and I stand in rows, ready for morning exercise. We do jumping jacks, pushups, mountain climbers, dive bombers, burpees, bodybuilders and leg lifts, all completed in unison. After the dynamic warm up, the recruits follow Ferris for a mile-and-a-half run, which they will eventually have to complete in less than 12 minutes to graduate, and Captain James Sancin takes me to the training tower.
The two of us jog up and down five flights of stairs in the concrete structure, starting in gym clothes then wearing full fire suits. We strap the bottles across our backs, our loads now totaling about 40 pounds each. Back up to the top, around an orange cone, and down. Sancin hands me a sledgehammer. Another trip to the top. I put down the hammer and grab a coiled length of fire hose, another 40 pounds. I’m so short of breath that I’m coughing on the way down. Outside, we remove our helmets and begin shoulder-pressing the bottles over our heads.
After training with the heavy, stubborn fire hose, we practice search and rescue in a modular home, which can be converted to more than 40 different layouts to keep recruits guessing. When the time comes, they will be blindfolded while wearing full gear – including masks and bottles – and told to safely retrieve any “victims” inside. There are three dummy victims – a 10-pounder, a 154-pounder and a 220-pounder. You pull each by a handheld strap from the neck, and moving the 220-pound dummy is like dragging a bag of hardening cement through a swamp.
Sancin and I finish working in the search-and-rescue home, and he explains the lights across the mask that indicate how much oxygen a firefighter has left: two green lights, one green light, one yellow, a red. The longer it takes to go from green to red, the better chance of survival for firefighter and victim alike.
They have about 20 minutes, maybe more, maybe less. That verdict will be earned in the crucible of the next five months, forged in heat and sweat.
There’s an obstacle course on a strip of green lawn near the back of the Columbus Police Academy, and near the end stands a six-foot wooden plank wall. Literally, it represents a privacy fence, the last major barrier in a simulated foot chase through a fake neighborhood. Metaphorically, though, it represents the difference between a civilian and a police officer.
“You gotta get over that wall. If you can’t get over that wall, you’re nothing more than a witness,” said Sergeant Ted Reardon. “Your partner got over the wall and is fighting with someone. Get over the wall and engage. Help your partner.”
The police PT program is about getting recruits over that wall; everything else they learn is about how to react once they’re on the other side.
Officer Greg Bernard, the leader of PT at the academy, welcomes me for the morning workout at the start of Week Nine of the 27-week program. We split into four groups – one jumps rope, another runs mini-suicides, a third hops back and forth over orange cones, and my group does mountain climbers. Each station lasts 30 seconds before rotating, and we do the entire circuit three times. I’m dripping sweat onto the gym floor by the beginning of the second circuit.
Much like CFD, the police program has undergone a major shift in focus toward military-style floor exercises and high-intensity interval training to create well-rounded, functional conditioning and physique. “In police work, you don’t know what you’re gonna face so we have to create police officers who are flexible,” Bernard says. “They’re strong, they’re fast, they’re agile, and they have a good base to whatever they do.” They also have to run a mile and a half (in 11 minutes and 58 seconds or less) and do a minimum number of pushups and sit-ups in one minute, as mandated by the state.
Bernard ratchets up the intensity as the weeks continue but lets the recruits train on their own after Week 16, other than the occasional cadence run – group jogs paced by “repeat after me” chants that build camaraderie.
“One mile, no sweat,” Bernard says while 45 recruits fall into line for a cadence run on this hot August morning. “Two miles, better yet,” answer two instructing officers in chorus as they join the ranks. Bernard tells the recruits to sing extra loud for their visitor – me – and they oblige as we sweat in unison on our tour of the grounds.
After the run, we do burst training, which is new to this class. We sprint 100 yards, building speed gradually, walk 100 more and complete 15 pushups at the finish. Then we sprint 200 yards back and crank out more pushups. A few sets and PT is over, though it’s not the end of training.
While the recruits at CFD learn to fight fires, the police trainees just fight.
“You have to trust yourself, son,” Tommy Page says to a hesitant recruit circling his opponent. Page is the ringside coach for the first boxing assessment of the academy, and he spends several hours peppering his charges with exhortations and encouragement. Recruits wearing headgear and pads under their shirts trade blows for a round each, two minutes apiece. It resembles some combination of Olympic boxing and an unskilled back alley brawl, which is probably the idea.
Though they begin DT (defensive tactics) on Day Five of Week One, this is the recruits’ first day in the ring. It takes eight weeks of technical instruction and hard physical training to get them ready to box, says Traci Shaw, one of the officers in charge of DT, which also includes ground fighting and subject control. They are taught to strike at full force to minimize the number of blows necessary to ground a subject, for the safety of themselves and the suspect.
Near the end of the session, two thick-muscled recruits enter the ring and immediately rush one another, trained skill replaced by a war of tenacity and brute strength. The ref separates them, giving them instruction on how they’re supposed to fight, while others standing ringside call out admonishments: “You have two minutes. Settle down and box.” At the minute-and-a-half mark, the recruits feel the effects of punching themselves out; they breathe heavy, barely able to swing their leaden arms. It highlights the critical nature of proper technique and physical fitness.
The obstacle course that tests both those factors waits just outside the combat room doors, nearly within eyesight of the ring. There they will be challenged. Can they get over that wall? Are they prepared for what’s on the other side? Only time will tell.•