The CPAT: One Woman's Experience

There are two sayings appropriate to the goal I was attempting in June of 2001. One is, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. The other is, never say "never." These useful words were running through my mind almost nonstop as I waited in line outside the Montana State University Ballroom in Bozeman for the civil service portion of what would be the first Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) held in Montana. The International Association of Fire Chiefs and International Association of Fire Fighters had spent two years designing this new physical abilities fire test, and the Montana Fire Consortium had adopted it as their new standard.

Two years earlier, I had taken the old firefighter exam, and along with all the other women who'd taken it in the state, I failed to complete it in the time allowed. The old test consisted of nine physical stations with a six-minute time limit. It was pretty brutal. My time ran out as I stepped (staggered, actually) out of the eighth station.

Overall, the experience had been very positive, but I had never planned on repeating it. Your body can only do what it can do, and mine at the age of 37 wasn't going to get me across that line in six minutes. Being a 5'5" woman also didn't help, since it seemed the ideal body type for that test was something more like a 5'10" - 6'4" male. Since fire tests are supposed to be as unbiased as possible, I had wished the Consortium would consider changing their test or adopting a new one.

When I took the test two years ago, I was very impressed with the firefighters administering it. They had been very professional: courteous, helpful, and kind. I kept reminding myself of that now as I stood in line listening to a couple of the younger candidates behind me trying to impress each other with all the fire tests they'd taken. I mentally rolled my eyes. Of about 300 candidates there, only 20 of us were women. Two were my friends and part-time training partners, and I was longing for the sight of them as I stood there quietly.

I make my living as a pediatric dental assistant. Working with small tools in little mouths is a far cry from fighting structure fires. But I had other skills, such as experience in search and rescue, medical training, and wildland firefighting, that didn't make it completely out of the question. Having been through this once already, I thought I'd never be that nervous again. I was wrong.

I was distinctly on the outside looking in. I'm a social person, and I felt like I was starving. I listened to men around me introduce themselves and visit with the other men they happened to be standing next to in line. The word "invisible" came to mind. It was a little depressing that none of these potential brave heroes all around me was brave enough to pass the time of day with me. "Well what did you expect, the Welcome Wagon?" I asked myself as I shrugged it off. Nobody was being mean; they were just overly cautious.

It's been more than 25 years since the first women started working as firefighters in other parts of the country. All the ground that has been gained in other places, however, has hardly even begun to be covered in Montana. While women have served on major departments from California to New York, Montana at this time had the dubious distinction of having only five women firefighters on its urban fire departments.

Before the advent of the Consortium in 1997, every Montana fire department had its own physical abilities test, some more unfortunately designed than others. It seems everyone agrees the job of firefighter is extremely physically demanding. But the art and science of measuring the exact amount of physical ability needed to do the job has long been debated.

After I decided to take the old test, I became fascinated with the process itself, and curious about the statistics. I thought it would be very helpful to study average candidate times for each station, or differences between male and female performance, among other things. I knew this would give me a better idea how to target my own training. It turned out, however, they didn't keep many statistics beyond pass/fail numbers.

In addition, there were no training programs available for the test. No women had ever managed to pass the test, and some people were beginning to wonder whether it had been specifically designed to keep women out. Nine stations to be completed in six minutes seemed pretty specific, but with no explanation of how they had chosen the stations or set the time limit, I wondered how scientifically and legally reliable those decisions were.

The IAFF and IAFC saw the need to attempt to address the entry-level testing issue, and they came up with the CPAT. The test is designed to measure a candidate's fitness as well as muscular strength, using tasks that would conceivably be performed as a working firefighter. Its eight stations must be completed in 10 minutes and 20 seconds, and various rules cover how a candidate performs each station. CPAT works candidates very hard, but has small windows of recovery built in. The stations are separated by an 85-foot distance candidates are required to walk, not run. The walk doesn't last long enough for your heart to come down out of anaerobic level; it's just enough to maintain the current level instead of constantly elevating it.

It was a big surprise to me to receive a call from Helena's Fire Chief Steve Larsen in the fall of 2000. He was getting in touch with women who had taken the old test and might be interested in giving the CPAT a try. I reminded him I would be 39 when this test was held. He suggested that if I managed to pass the CPAT -- and many women in other states had passed it -- I could challenge the Montana law that prohibited hiring firefighters over the age of 34. Talk about long shots! I thought this was putting the cart so far in front of the horse that I could look back and never even see his nose. But it was intriguing, so I came over to the fire station and watched the film about the CPAT anyway.

I figured the chief must have been hurting for female candidates who wanted to try this test. Having taken the old one, I had no problem understanding why: I knew what a huge investment of time this effort would take. I really didn't have any illusions about it being a great opportunity to change careers. Even if I managed to pass the test, I would be a good ten to fifteen years older than the other candidates. The odds of my ending up with a job out of it all were not good. But when I talked it over with my husband, he said exactly what had been going through my mind: "You know if you don't try this, you'll wonder for the rest of your life." So I called the fire chief back and told him," I'm in."

I'm glad the Montana Consortium adopted the CPAT as its new physical test. But for whatever reason, probably money, they still didn't make a training program available. So I was on my own again. As I began my workouts, I also started doing research. I tried to find training programs specifically designed for women, but I found none. I tried to get in touch by e-mail with women who had taken the CPAT, with limited success. A woman from New York told me the best training for CPAT was to perform the test itself over and over and over. This wasn't much help, since I had learned that none of the stations or equipment would be available for practice.

All right, I thought: improvise. I got in contact with a woman in Frenchtown named Charlene. She worked for the Frenchtown fire district and had taken the same test I had two years before. She had also taken the CPAT twice in other states. Charlene had set up a mock course that she and a friend ran through once a week, and she generously offered to let me run through it with her as many times as I could manage to get down there. By this point, it was winter, and I couldn't see driving to Frenchtown until spring. In the meantime, I still had a lot of training to do.

The Consortium's training guide was interesting, but not as helpful as it could have been. While it was quite detailed, including a twelve-week program that looked really good, you needed a facility to hold it in. It specified 90-minute workouts using circuit training and a progression of running miles. But unless you could talk a health club into setting up the whole circuit just for you, I didn't see how it could realistically be duplicated. And even assuming they would set it up, and also assuming I could afford what they would charge me for it, I didn't want to live at the health club. Nor did running five days a week in the middle of winter in Montana didn't appeal to me. I know people do it, but I wasn't eager to be one of them.

I had to deal in reality. The reality was, I was not a single man in my twenties. I was a married woman pushing 40, with two small children and a full-time job. I could see no way to follow the Consortium's training schedule and still manage to spend much time with my family, let alone function well at my job. Taking the training in a facility as a specific course, with a specific time frame, would have been a whole different proposition. Hardly any of the other candidates I talked to had followed the training guide's recommendations, for much the same reasons. Still, the instructions in the back about target training for the different stations were helpful, and I made use of them.

Having babies had been a real eye-opener for me. It taught me that sleep is essential to life, and planning 48 hours of activity for every 24 just doesn't work. I knew I either had to design a training program of my own or chuck the whole idea. I chose the former. My goals were: to use training time as efficiently as possible, to change my body composition from a little less fat to a little more muscle, to significantly improve my aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and to still have a life.

What I came up with after a lot of research, including advice from my doctor and a physical therapist, was a mish-mash that really worked. For aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, I used Lance Armstrong's target heart rate training program. I learned what you do for aerobic conditioning really isn't as important as what level you do it at. Armstrong's training program tailors your workouts to different heart rate levels. You calculate your maximum heart rate (by subtracting your age from 220), and work out at 65-75% of that, three or four times a week.

Then you add one or two power interval workouts a week. These are done at 75-80% of maximum, with rest intervals in between. For example, after warming up for 5 to 10 minutes, you might take the rest of the workout time going 3 minutes up, 6 minutes down (your down time is always twice the amount of your up time), and then repeating it. According to Armstrong and his coach, it is very important to keep your heart rate within 2 to 3 beats of the target range. This ensures the greatest benefit in the shortest time.

I bought a heart monitor and kept a log of my workouts. Although getting there isn't very comfortable, once you're in anaerobic level you're not even really breathing that hard. The body switches over to different systems to handle the huge increase in demand for oxygen, like a truck switching gears to climb a hill.

The workout done the day after an interval workout must be at the bottom of your aerobic scale. This is called "active resting." It keeps your muscles limber and flushes out all the lactic acid built up without overtraining. If you don't do it, you feel pretty much like you've been run over by a car all the time. Beating yourself up and stressing your heart instead of training it to be a more efficient machine is not what you're aiming for.

All of the literature I've read has indicated that women don't gain a lot of muscle using a circuit program like the Consortium's. It makes sense that smaller-framed human beings (i.e., most women) might need to add to their upper-body muscle mass in order to attempt a firefighter test. I used Joyce Vedral's isolation weight training for women. I found as my training progressed that with all the leg conditioning I was doing in my aerobic workouts, I didn't need to do any squats or lunges, which can be hard on the joints. I was also having a major problem with keeping my hamstrings and quads stretched out sufficiently. So I eventually changed to a shortened upper-body workout to maintain what I had gained in muscle already.

These things were fine in themselves, but my flexibility was not good. Yoga turned out to be the key that brought it all together. It reminded me of football players taking ballet. Yoga is very deceptive, because it uses slow movements and poses to train the body. It has elements of weight lifting, because you're moving and balancing your own body weight, and also wonderful and very effective stretching that helps you relax. In addition, yoga specifically trains you to learn to control your breathing under stress, so you get the most out of each breath. These are talents any athlete or firefighter would find very useful! For me, it brought all the other training methods together by adding strength, flexibility, breathing, balance and relaxation.

Most of my yoga comes from Ashtanga discipline, which is at the more athletic end of the scale. It took me just about 30 minutes in the mornings, and I tried to do it every day. I found that after I had been doing it for a few weeks, my muscle and joint pain virtually disappeared. I also made great strides in slowing my heart rate down more quickly after interval training. As a side benefit, I was also able to impress my sons with my newfound ability to stand in pretzel poses one-legged for long periods of time.

So, my goal of a highly efficient training system designed for a woman ended up as:

  • yoga 30 minutes a day 7 days a week
  • aerobic and anaerobic training 30 minutes a day 5-6 days a week
  • weight training about 20 minutes a day 3 times a week

I found it much easier to get my training in 30-minute intervals. As a working mother, if I had an uninterrupted 90 minutes even once in two weeks, I would think I was living in heaven. And if I did, I could probably think of one or two more pleasant things to spend it on than working out.

It was probably inevitable that I got sick. I got the flu at the end of November, and spent most of December and January crawling out of it. I had to stop my training because I found it hard to breathe while coughing uncontrollably. As soon as I did manage a respectable training period, I'd relapse into another sinus infection or bronchitis. With the test set for early June, I thought I might have to give up taking it at all.

Finally, in May, I got back in touch with Charlene, and went to Frenchtown to run the mock CPAT course with her and her friend, Jenny. I'd just finished my last course of antibiotics a week before and still wasn't breathing right. Truly, I was just looking for an excuse to quit. Standing beside Charlene at 5'11", and Jenny at 5'9", I felt like a Shetland pony that had somehow wandered into the thoroughbred barn -- and not just any pony, but one that hauled carts out of the coal mines and was working on a case of black lung.

Charlene and Jenny had been doing the mock test all winter. They told me about high-stepping through the snow and having it take 18 minutes just to slog through the course. All CPAT candidates wear a 50-pound weighted vest during the test. Charlene and Jenny had been using an old air tank filled with rocks. Then the fire chief in Frenchtown got one of the actual vests used in the test, and also got the two 12-pound strips used on the shoulders for the first station, the stair machine. I showed up at the right time because he was allowing them to practice with these items.

I don't know many people who look forward to climbing stairs with 74 pounds on their back. It takes a determined mental attitude that I was sadly lacking at that point. Mental attitude is crucial when training for a test like this, but after being sick for most of the winter, I found mine was at rock bottom. Somehow, though, just being with women who were going through the same things I was, trying to reach the same goal, completely recharged me. I knew if I got sick again before June I was done, but otherwise, I wouldn't quit.

The first time I ran the mock course, I did it in 11 minutes, 8 seconds. This wasn't bad, considering I hadn't been able to get out of bed the week before. I felt like a walking wreck. I still couldn't breathe right, and my attitude was rotten! I remember being on my knees, jerking the fire hose to me, wasting a lot of good potential forward energy in a mental tantrum. "THIS.....DOESN"T.....FEEL.....GOOD!!!!!

Charlene had doubled up the fire hose we were pulling, so when we took the real CPAT, the hose station would feel easy. Like me, she well remembered the 3" hose used on the old test. While the hose station on the CPAT uses 1 3/4" hose, we weren't taking any chances.

I didn't have any problem pulling the rescue dummy which at 175 pounds was the heaviest one available. I had a harder time with the sledge hammer station, a junk car that we beat on with a 10-pound sledge hammer. Swinging the sledge from the side to hit a chest-high target was difficult. The hammer wasn't too heavy, but I just couldn't seem to stop treating it like an axe, moving my hand too far up and down the handle. I needed to find a shorter, more compact swing. I knew I needed a lot of practice with this station, but couldn't figure out how to get it. I could just imagine going back to Helena and approaching some junk yard owners. "Excuse me, would you mind if I just beat on a few of your cars for a while?"

I had each of us wear my heart monitor when we ran through the course. Interestingly we were all working close to the same level, with heart rates in the 170's. My maximum heart rate (MHR) at my age is 179. Jenny and Charlene, being in their early twenties have a much higher MHR, somewhere around 195-197. So while I was working close to my MHR, they had a little more in reserve.

While working in short intervals to reach and maintain levels close to MHR provides good training, continuously working at MHR is not a good idea. As every firefighter knows, working a pump beyond capacity for a long period is a bad plan. This is why if an individual never trains at anaerobic levels, taking a fire test can be a horrendous shock to the body. This applies to active firefighters as well as to people training for a specific event such as CPAT.

The second time I went through the course I cut off 16 seconds. When I went back another time I took off 8 more. Good, but not good enough. Anyone who has competed in timed events knows even a few seconds covers a whole lot of ground.

I had to go back to Helena, and figured I'd be lucky to make it to Frenchtown again before the test. So I decided to put up a CPAT course of my own. I was able to duplicate almost every station on the test pretty well. The only one I had trouble with was the sledge hammer: I didn't have anything I could hit from the side. So I set up a sawhorse with a target and had to pull my swing short every time. I borrowed two sections of worn-out 3" hose from Steve Larsen, for which I was extremely grateful.

All the rest of my "stations" I scrounged from friends and family, and set it all up at my brother's house. Buckets, ladders, round free weights, ropes, pulleys, some steel rebar, sandbags, and more sandbags. My dad said it was the biggest God-awful pile of junk he'd ever seen. I carefully paced off every 85-foot distance between stations and every distance for the stations themselves: 70 feet to pull the dummy, 75 feet to pull the hose to a drum, then 25 more to a box, and so on. I marked everything with orange survey tape and little piles of rocks to indicate direction. I used a meat-packing frame from my bowhunting gear with a sandbag tied to it to simulate the weighted vest.

After all this work, I managed to run my test four separate occasions before I had to pack it up. I shaved off seconds every time I did it. One time I did it in under 10 minutes, which I think was a fluke; another time I did it in 10:28. I knew my test wasn't a perfect duplication, but it's hard to argue with constant improvement.

The last two weeks before the test, I tried to get to bed early every night. I changed my training, going to one anaerobic workout every three days. I had my youngest son sit on my meat-packing frame, or used a sandbag, turned the stereo up as loud as possible to Bonnie Raitt singing the blues, and stepped up and down the bottom of the stairs in my house. I maintained my heart rate using my heart monitor at about 168-170 for 14 minutes continuously.

When I came back to Bozeman this time, I certainly felt a lot better prepared than two years ago. I waited out my time in line, and passed my written exam ten points higher than before. The CPAT was scheduled for the next day, so I drove back to Helena to spend the night at home.

Back in Bozeman the next morning, I went right to Charlene and Jenny's room: Charlene had taken the test at 8:00 a.m. When she opened the door, screamed, grabbed me and spun me in a circle, I had my answer about whether she'd passed or not. I spent about half an hour in their room doing yoga while I tried to pick her brain over every detail she remembered. I was completely stretched out, warmed up and feeling good when we all walked down to the gym for my turn. She warned me that there had already been some women who failed on the first station. I cringed just thinking about it. I found out later that 29% of the women who failed CPAT, failed on the first station. I wonder how much of that might have been due to inefficient anaerobic interval training.

When I went in with my group I was the only woman. No surprise there; I was getting used to it. Charlene and Jenny waited outside, since they don't allow spectators. My proctor, John, was very kind and helpful. As another firefighter, Derek, helped me on with the helmet and vest, and they both tried to put me at ease. Actually, all the firefighters I had contact with during this test were absolute gentlemen. They were in a situation where they had every opportunity to be subtly nasty if they wanted to, but instead they went out of their way to be helpful and encouraging.

It's a good idea when being fitted with your vest to take a very full, deep breath. The vests aren't tailored for anything in front but a flat chest wall. If you're female, and like me never lost enough body fat to do away with that entirely, you'd better take a very deep breath. It's a simple thing, but if I hadn't practiced with an actual vest ahead of time I never would have learned it.

To me, the stair machine is the make-or-break station of the CPAT. It takes a candidate from zero right into anaerobic level that has to be maintained for 3 minutes and 20 seconds. If interval workouts aren't an integral part of your training program, this station can destroy you in short order. It is very deceptive because it is so slow. For the first 20 seconds, it's set for 50 steps a minute; then it goes to 60 steps a minute for the remaining time. You aren't allowed to touch the side rails with your hands except momentarily for balance. If you touch the steps with your hands or fall off the machine at any time, you are disqualified.

It's like being on a mini-escalator. It's best not to watch the steps, because that will make you dizzy. The climbing feels like no problem at first, but the further you get into the time, the heavier your legs get, until it feels pretty much like each leg must weigh about 200 pounds.

The station really gets you pumping, to the point that when it's time to stop, you almost feel disoriented. I had thought there would be a major psychological boost when they stripped the extra 24 pounds off after this station, but I must have missed it, because I never noticed the difference. Actually, I'm sure my heart and lungs did notice, but it didn't register with my brain or whatever passed for my brain about then. I was suffering from what I call oxygen deprivation fantasy. I actually felt GOOD! I felt STRONG! "Bring it on, I can do this!" My rotten attitude and all those nerves were gone. Among all of the encouragement people had given me during my training for this test was something a friend told me her mother used to say: "If it's packed down tight, it don't rattle!" I was in the process of seeing how tight I'd packed.

John was walking beside me, being unobtrusively helpful. I remember his quiet voice encouraging me: "Your legs might be a little shaky here for a bit; just keep taking those good long breaths... You're doing fine, Tammie." I'd already decided I wasn't going to run on the hose station, the only station where it is allowed. I don't think it saves much time, and it's really more likely to throw you over your limits right after doing the stairs. The hose was actually refreshing, after having practiced with the bigger hose: I had no problem dragging it in.

The two ladders were stout, but not a problem. I made sure to use every rung when lifting the first ladder, and never let the halyard slip through my hands when pulling the second. The 85-foot distance between stations went by quickly, but I was never in any kind of deep distress, and I was still having my power fantasies. I was in outer space but still able to hear John instructing me about my breathing and which way to go. Getting the chainsaw and chopsaw out of the cupboard, packing them 75 feet, and putting them back was a little awkward, since the two saws don't balance the same. I was careful to place them both on the ground before picking them up again one at a time to put back in the cupboard. If you try to put them in the cupboard without putting them down first, you're disqualified. (I had practiced for this station using two buckets with 30 pounds in one and 40 in the other.)

I followed the line with John and picked up the ten-pound sledge hammer. I hadn't been able to simulate this station very well, and I'd never practiced on the real thing. In my own little world, I couldn't see or hear anything but the target. By my sixth hit, I knew I wasn't hitting it hard enough, so I put more into it. It took twelve hits before the buzzer sounded. Not good; Charlene had told me it took her nine. I'd guess the average is somewhere between seven and ten.

I walked over to the maze, trying to stretch my steps out a little, although I was walking as fast as I possibly could have at the moment anyway. I dropped to my knees in front of the maze; someone lifted the curtain, and I went in. I closed my eyes and concentrated on keeping my left side always touching the wall. At last, something where being smaller gave me an advantage! When the ceiling started sloping down, forcing me to slide on my belly in the dark I allowed myself a smug thought as things got tight, that some of the big guys here today might worry about getting stuck. It wasn't very nice of me, but I was getting tired of being the underdog. They flipped the curtain back and I stood up feeling the vest for the first time like an anchor until I was upright again.

With a rush of excitement I walked over to the dummy, grabbed the straps, leaned back and took off. The trick to this station is to keep your back straight, feet moving, and mind somewhere else. The dummy weighs 165 pounds, and you have to drag it rather than picking it up, since the majority of rescues performed by firefighters involve dragging rather than carrying. I got the dummy across the line and started walking to the last station feeling really good. I could hear the clang of the pike pole being used by the candidate in front of me and was really fired up, ready to finish.

Almost there, John turned to me and said, "Great effort kiddo, but I'm afraid we're out of time." I felt my mouth drop open in shock, while my mind was still rolling full steam ahead. I took one quick longing glance at the last station, then turned around, grinned at John and shook his hand.

I was strong enough to handle every task on this test. I just hadn't trained myself to be fast enough to get across the line in 10:20. John helped me off with the vest and helmet, and walked me over to the medical area. Here was where I saw the real difference between CPAT and the old test. No candidates were lying down on the cots. I didn't smell vomit. I wasn't coughing so hard I felt like my lungs were coming up. I didn't even have to have my blood pressure taken. I was still shaking, but I felt okay. I had a nice visit with the guy there about how much better this test was. Somebody came over and told me I 'd done a good job. I really appreciated that.

I went outside and gave Jenny and Charlene the news. I could tell Charlene was worried I was going to feel really bad, but I actually felt good. What I hadn't realized was that I must have been carrying a chip on my shoulder from the last test, with always that hidden message from a lot of people that "Women really aren't strong enough to handle this work: women in general, and you in particular, Tammie." Women are strong enough to handle this job. I am strong enough to handle it. But I have to accept my physical limitations. I personally was not fast enough to get across that line in 10:20.

I was also informed that male firefighters in Montana are not ready or willing to accept women as co-workers. I don't buy that. It certainly wasn't any part of my experience taking either test. In my opinion, the CPAT is the best chance yet for women to get their foot in the door. The Montana Consortium showed great judgment in adopting CPAT. It was a giant step in the right direction, but it's only the first step.

The two women who passed the CPAT are currently working as firefighters in Montana. They will have adjustments to make, as anyone would being a minority in a similar situation. In the future, more women will join them. The Consortium could ease the growing pains of an integrating workforce a number of different ways. An organized and supported training program should be at the top of the list. Phoenix has a CPAT preparation course that lasts twelve weeks and could be run here as a class through a health club or community college. With the number of candidates taking CPAT, I would think there might be enough interest to support at least one course a year, if not more. When the Montana Fire Consortium gave the CPAT, the pass rate was 75% for men and 10% for women. With supported training, these numbers can be improved: in Phoenix, the pass rate is better for everyone, and it's more than four times higher (42%) for women.

I would describe myself as a good athlete: "good" in the context of "fairly good" or "good enough." I am a very average woman. I would describe the two women who passed CPAT in Montana as exceptionally athletically gifted, which is significantly better than "good." But if I got as far as I did at age 39, with my home-made training program, I see no reason why most, if not all, of the other female candidates can't start flying across that line. Training counts -- a lot. At the very least, I know if I could gather the materials to make my own mock course, the cities in the Consortium should also be able to do so. At least candidates in their general area would have something available to practice.

Keeping more statistics on the CPAT would be extremely helpful. Test administrators should be documenting average times for each station, differences in men's and women's performance, and maybe even statistics of candidates' age, height, and weight vs. their times. Without these statistics, the Consortium and other test-givers only keep themselves ignorant as to how and why the test works, or even whether it provides an accurate measurement of what they want to measure.

I was asked immediately after taking CPAT this time if I was going to take it again, since it will now be held annually. The thought was quite a temptation. Sort of as a 40th birthday present to myself? I laughed loud and long at that, though I was very careful not to say "never". Still, I sure wish I could have got across that line in 10:20!

Copyright 2001 © Tammie Jones. Used by permission.




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