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Fitness test

Firefighter hopefuls put through paces

Firefighter hopeful Andrew Archibald takes the VO2 max test while administrators Alex Budgell and Sylvie Fortier assist.

By Mandy Cook

For those brave powerhouses who’ve conquered the “dummy drag” and “tower climb” training challenges in their quest to be a firefighter, there is one last test they cannot fail: the VO2 max.

The VO2 max test measures maximal oxygen consumption and is used to assess an individual’s aerobic fitness. The test is only available in Newfoundland and Labrador from Allied Health Services (AHS) – a network of services focused on enhancing health, athletic performance, education and research within Memorial’s School of Human Kinetics and Recreation.

“Allied Health Services is the only accredited fitness appraisal centre for advanced physiological testing, such as the VO2 max test, in the province,” said Dr. Amy Butt, co-ordinator of AHS. “The Metabolic Cart – the equipment used in the test – is quite sophisticated and was purchased for the purposes of research.

“Fortuitously, it can be used for testing fitness levels of athletes and certain occupational groups, as well.”

While wearing a mouthpiece and nose clip, hopeful firefighters run on a treadmill that increases in speed by two kilometres per hour every two minutes until the person reaches exhaustion. The individual’s maximal oxygen consumption during exercise is then measured through the resultant gas collection and analysis. The minimal acceptable score of the VO2 max test for firefighters is 42.5 ml/kg/minute.

“Firefighter job-related testing dictates that he or she must exhibit both aerobic and anaerobic fitness,” said Dr. Butt. “While they might demonstrate anaerobic fitness by kicking down a door to a burning building, they must then show a high level of aerobic fitness by running up six flights of steps carrying an 80-pound fire hose.”

Precipitated by the retirement of senior members, the St. John’s Fire Department tends to recruit new firefighters every two years. The C.B.S. Fire Department typically follows the same schedule.

Up until this spring, the two fire departments sent individuals to complete the VO2 max test once the potential recruits passed the preliminary requirements of individual interviews, written tests and physical tests such as the claustrophobia or rope pull tests. Now, anyone interested in undertaking the complete screening process must pass the VO2 max during the first phase of testing.

That means AHS is currently processing approximately 130 VO2 max tests for the latest round of firefighter recruits – a major jump from the 12-15 individuals they would normally put through their paces. Some people have flown in from locations in Labrador and Ontario to be tested.

Since early February, two exercise physiologists have been administering the test Monday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings, plus Thursday afternoons and some Saturdays to accommodate the increased demand. The cost is $100 plus HST and includes a written report, which takes about one hour to produce.
Testing will finish the end of March.

While the hectic pace might deter some, Dr. Butt said the AHS motto “we’ll make it work” has been their guiding principle during the testing rush. She also said a healthy working relationship with everyone involved has been paramount for the success of the endeavour.

“We’ve been working with the St. John’s Fire Department for many months in preparation, and the faculty and staff here in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation have been very supportive.”

In addition to administering the VO2 max for each individual seeking to become a member of the St. John’s or C.B.S. Fire Department, Allied Health Services is currently in the process of transitioning all required physical testing for future recruiting sessions from the fire departments to AHS.