Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Dollars to doughnuts: Police fitness test saves money

By Daniel Chacon Updated: July 6, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Everyone has heard the jokes about cops and doughnuts.

But a police officer's health and physical fitness are serious business.

They have dangerous, stressful jobs with risk of injury, even death, on a daily basis. When they retire, some studies show their life expectancy is shorter than other professions.

The Colorado Springs Police Department is taking note.

After seeing nearly 1,000 injury claims since 2007 - costing taxpayers more than $11.36 million in lost wages, medical bills and other expenses - the department is measuring officers' overall fitness and promoting a healthier lifestyle.

For the first time in years, the department in April started to mandate that anyone with a badge to take a physical fitness test, a decision that triggered trepidation among the rank and file.

"Guys were scared," said Dave Henrichsen, president of the Colorado Springs Police Protective Association.

"I think guys were just afraid that they were going to get fired if they didn't pass the test."

Their worries were unfounded, he said. Of the officers who have taken the test so far, only a small number have failed, he said.

"It's not that hard," said Henrichsen, 48, who passed the test. "If you are extremely out of shape, which we don't have many of those, it's going to be a difficult row to hoe."

Police Chief Pete Carey, who also passed the test, hasn't decided the consequences for failing or whether the test will be required going forward.

"The two main reasons I think this test will be effective are: improved job performance and longevity," Carey said in an email.

"Officers work irregular hours and respond to high stress calls; whether it's a pursuit for a robbery suspect or an investigation into the sexual assault of a child, the job takes a physical toll on officers," he said. "The bottom line is that physical fitness is necessary for the safe and effective performance of critical and essential job functions required of an officer."

For now, officers are taking only a "practice test" to assess their fitness level, Commander Thor Eells said. If they don't pass the first time, they will receive guidance and a plan on what they need to work on to pass, he said.

"These levels that have been established are not levels that would be difficult to attain," Eells said.

"Quite honestly, they're levels that are on par with the average sedentary adult in the community, not the average active adult," he said. "But at least there's some degree of minimum where before, we had nothing. We had no standards."

Eells said the department will study the data after everyone completes the test to make the "best informed" decision on next steps.

"That's what we're waiting for," he said. "The chief will have to ultimately make a decision as to whether he wants to implement this or not."

The department contracted with Maryland-based Human Performance Systems to develop standards that were job specific and wouldn't discriminate against any group, such as women or older officers.

The standards were developed using department data.

It started with 115 officers of all ranks, genders, ages and ethnicities participating in 13 or 14 exercises to measure strength, speed and cardiovascular fitness. The SWAT team and K9 unit were excluded because they would've skewed the results, Eells said.

"They are extremely fit individuals," he said.

Commander Sue Autry said only SWAT and K9 officers are allowed work time to work out because of their job requirements.

"The rest of the officers work out on their own time. That's something that has always had a lot of discussion," she said.

After the exercise drills, the department whittled to four the number of exercises for the fitness test. They are push-ups, sit-ups and tests to measure agility and cardiovascular fitness.

Autry said the department uses a compensatory scoring model.

"Let's say I am not as great on pushups and I don't get quite as many pushups, I can make up for that in one of the other exercises," she said.

Barbara Miller, who became the police department's spokeswoman in 2011 after retiring from the Orange County Sheriff's Office in Florida, said she was surprised Colorado Springs didn't have a fitness test for its officers.

"My husband was in foot pursuits all the time, and there were guys who could not jump that fence and I'm thinking, 'He's after a convicted felon with a weapon and you can't make it over the fence?' That's not right. Don't wear the badge then," she said.

Eells said there is no national police law enforcement fitness standard.

"Each agency can develop their own and apply whatever standards they want," he said. "Some use incentive-based programs in that if you achieve a certain fitness level, you get a certain monetary award or a certain amount of hours towards your vacation bank or a t-shirt. Others actually will prohibit you from participating in a promotional process if you're not at a certain level. It is literally all over the board, no template or consistency with regard to it."

Eells said the fitness test is rooted in a desire to reduce the number of injuries and improve the department's overall fitness level and well-being.

"It seemed like it would just be a good idea as a whole to have a wellness program for our department, not just physical fitness but wellness as a whole so mental health, dietary knowledge and making good choices and eating as healthy as we possibly can," he said.

Eells said the idea started years ago when the department re-examined the physical fitness test for SWAT team applicants. The test was redesigned to measure core strength and ability to do the job rather than only an applicant's physical fitness. For example, applicants previously had to do a certain number of pull-ups. The test was redesigned to include a fewer number of pull-ups but with a weighted vest.

"Knowing that our SWAT officers are wearing 60 to 75 pounds of gear, wearing a weighted vest but only having to do three or four was a fair test, and it measured what we needed in that yes, they have the upper body strength to be able to pull themselves up to some place," he said.

After the new test was implemented, the SWAT team went without a back injury for three consecutive years, Eells said.

"We were averaging one significant back injury a year and by significant, I mean one requiring surgical correction," he said. "That meant that I would lose that officer for a period of six to nine moths from their position on the team and it cost workers compensation, our risk management folks, a fair amount of money to deal with that."

Before the new fitness test was rolled out, Eells said the department held an in-service that included a voluntary medical screen and lessons on short, high-intensity workouts.

Part of the idea was to give officers time to get in shape.

"The chief said more people are going to the gym than have ever gone to the gym," Autry said.

"That's what we want," Eells said. "No one wants to be the heavy on this and swing a big stick. Really, if we could give everyone the carrot, it would be great."

 

Fitness test

Officers must score of 20 or more to pass. The test has four components: sit-ups; push-ups; the Illinois Agility Run, which is a weaving running course; and the Beep Test, also a running test timed to recorded beeps. In the Beep Test, cones are spaced 22 yards apart, and each cone-to-cone run counts as a "trip."

 

0 points

11 sit-ups or less in a minute

7 push-ups or less in a minute

24.44 seconds or more: Illinois Agility Run

18 trips: Beep Test

 

5 points

26 to 30 sit-ups

18 to 22 push-ups

20.19 to 20.75 seconds: Illinois Agility Run

37 to 43 trips: Beep Test

 

8 points

40 or more sit-ups

39 or more pushups

18.3 seconds or less: Illinois Agility Run

62 trips or more: Beep Test

 

* Officers need to average 5 across the board to get the minimum number of 20 points to pass.

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Contact Daniel ChacOn: 476-1623 Twitter @danieljchacon Facebook Daniel Chacon

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