As an increasing number of Municipalities across Canada and the United States make the CPAT their official physical test as part of the firefighter hiring process, recruitment candidates should familiarize themselves with this test, as well as understand how a metabolic and strength conditioning program can properly prepare them for it.
The CPAT began in 1997 as a result of what the IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) and IAFC (International Association of Fire Chiefs) viewed as a need to standardize the physical testing of candidates being hired into fire services all across North America. The rationale was that candidates who were incapable of achieving the physical requirements of fire fighting were slipping through the cracks. A task force consisting of the IAFF / IAFC and ten leading fire services and their unions created the Fire Service Joint Labor-Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative. In turn, the CPAT was developed.
Using 1000 randomly selected fire fighters from the ten fire services, various standards were developed based on averages. Averages such as; what kinds of tasks fire fighters are required to complete, how much the average gear and tools weigh, the average height and weight of the fire fighters, and even the average weight of patients entering the ER departments of the cities where the ten fire services were located. Using these averages, an 'obstacle course' was created that the task force felt best replicated what the average firefighter would experience at an average fire ground scenario. After running their fire fighters through it, they also came up with an average time that candidates should pass.
Municipalities that decide to run the CPAT as their official test must be licensed accordingly by the IAFF in order to do so. This results in an across-the-board baseline whereby every CPAT is essentially the exact same thing. All distances, weights, instructions, and sequence is the exact same. The individuals manning the test have received recognized training as well. Because the CPAT is a recognized standard that has been developed with such an excellent attention to detail, candidates are essentially unable to legally challenge the results as being 'unfair' - since thousands upon thousands of applicants and hires have set precedence before them as to the universal acceptance of this test.
The general rules of the CPAT are pretty straight-forward. Every step of the CPAT has a particular aspect to it that can constitute an instant fail. Sometimes you get to have a 'warning' before you fail, again, this depends on the step you're on. There is a set time you must complete all eight steps in to pass.
The CPAT starts with a candidate being 'loaded' with a 50lb weighted vest. They are asked to make their way to a stair-climbing machine and given an extra 25lbs (12.5 add-ons on each shoulder). A 20 second warm-up at 50 steps per minute is quickly followed by a 3 minute, 60 steps per minute set. You cannot touch the rail twice, or you will fail. This is the only part of the whole CPAT where you cannot go more quickly than the time allocated for it.
Step 2, the hose drag, involves grabbing a nozzle on 200 feet of 1 Â¾ hose and running with it 75 feet to a drum then turning 90 degrees and running another 25 feet. You then get on one knee and drag the hose until the first coupling, at 50 feet, crosses the finish line. This is the only part of the CPAT that you can run as fast as you can. If you fail to go around the drum, it's an instant fail. If one of your knees is outside the finish-line 'box' you get a warning. The second time it's a fail.
Step 3, the equipment carry, involves carrying two saws around a cone and back to the starting point. This starts by picking up each saw from a shelf and placing it on the ground, one at a time. Once both saws are on the ground, they are picked up at the same time, one in each hand, and carried around the cone and back. They are then returned to the shelf in the reverse sequence as they were removed, one at a time. If the saws fall or touch the ground during the carry in any way, it's a fail. If you run at all, it's a fail.
Step 4, the ladder raise and extension, involves raising a 24 foot aluminum ladder from a lying position to a vertical one against a wall. You then move to the side and extend the fly-section of an identical ladder to its limit, then lower it back down to the ground in a controlled, hand-over-hand manner. Any loss of control during any part of this step, including having the rope slip in any fashion, will result in an instant fail.
Step 5, forcible entry, involves striking a 10lb sledge-hammer against a mechanical measuring device which is meant to simulate the resistance of a typical front door. Once the buzzer sounds, signalling that a successful amount of force has been applied, the step is concluded. Dropping the sledge hammer will result in an instant fail. Stepping outside of a marked box that you are standing in to swing the sledge hammer will result in a warning. A second warning is an instant fail.
Step 6, search, involves crawling through a darkened 64 foot u-shape maze (two 90 degree angles) with obstacles in your path requiring you to feel and make your way through it. Any event that results in the candidate requiring assistance out of the maze, either by panicking or running out of time, will lead to an instant fail.
Step 7, rescue, involves dragging a 165lb dummy around a drum and back to the starting line, totalling 70ft. If the candidate fails to drag the dummy around the drum, or the candidate touches or rests on the drum, they instantly fail.
Step 8, ceiling breach and pull, involves using a pike pole to perform four complete sets of three repetitions of pushing up a hinged door, followed by 5 repetitions of pulling down on a hook attached to a ceiling device. Both the hinged door and the ceiling device provide a weighted resistance. Stepping outside the designated area will result in a warning. A second time will result in an instant fail. Candidates are allowed to drop the pike-pole once, a second time will result in an instant fail.
Even without failing any of the eight steps, you must still complete them in a set time. If you go over the set time unfortunately this results in an instant fail as well.
Like most fire fighters, I spent a few years working hard to get hired. This resulted in my having done more CPATs than I care to remember. Because most of these CPATs were out of town, I spent numerous hours sitting around waiting for my turn, and this enabled me to see hundreds of other candidates perform the CPAT. While the majority passed, a surprisingly large number also failed - I would never have guessed that the failure rate was as high as it was unless I saw it for myself. I saw people pretty much fail at every single step. While many people failed for technical reasons such as dropping the ladder, panicking in the maze, not running around a drum, running when not supposed to, dropping a sledge-hammer (pretty much every failure mentioned in the steps above I've seen happen!) - The majority of people failed because they simply were not in proper shape to undertake the CPAT, plain and simple. I've seen people give up after less than a minute on the stair-climber! What on earth were they thinking the job entailed? A lot of people managed to make it through the CPAT, but not under the amount of time allocated.
Passing the CPAT requires that you get yourself in fire fighter shape. Fitness programs such as the metabolic and strength conditioning combined with powerlifting workouts are perfect for the particularities of becoming a fire fighter. I've seen my share of body-builder types (the stereotypical types that you would have to assume are in excellent shape if you didn't know better) who made it off the stair-climber with rubber legs looking like they just got off a boat that completed a 6 year journey at sea. They had no gas left in their tanks and couldn't complete the rest of it in time.
The fact of the matter is that unless you train for all aspects of fitness, you will lack the strength, endurance, cross-training, recovery, and general conditioning required for not only passing the CPAT, but performing your job as a fire fighter. Barely passing the CPAT is also not enough. Most fire services one you get hired and are in their drill school have their own physical tests which are much more demanding than the CPAT and have no problems cutting you if you can't handle it. The days of getting instantly hired for the rest of your life are behind us and recruits are at an ever increasing chance of being let go due to poor physical conditioning. Even more challenging than the drill school physical tests are dealing with an actual fire. Ask any fire fighter with actual experience what the difference is - it's pretty much day and night.
The CPAT should be seen as an absolute bear minimum of fitness level. If you can't smoke the CPAT in under 7:30, you may get a nasty wake-up call in drill school or worse, on the fire ground. You shouldn't be walking around with your head high if you barely passed. Use the time between the CPAT and getting hired to increase your physical conditioning! Being in excellent physical condition is your responsibility once you get hired - and if you are not willing to put in the sacrifice to achieve a high level of fitness, this job simply isn't for you. There are numerous programs out there that can take you to the next level, so look around and do your homework. We like to think our program, which takes you safely and effectively from beginner to advanced is great, but we're obviously partial since we've seen great results from it and have been perfecting it for over 4 years now. Whatever fitness program you come across, give it your best. As a fire fighter, doing nothing is never an option.
General tips for passing the CPAT are as follows:
- Get in shape!
- Follow all directions
- Familiarize yourself with all the steps
- Hydrate yourself properly prior to starting
- Eat a healthy breakfast on testing day (as you should every day)
- Get a goodnight sleep
- Don't stress out - Getting in shape, knowing what to expect, and being fueled will result in your success!