| Where’s the Fire? In your Muscles and Lungs: Analyzing the CPAT

Author / Randolph Barker II

5-7 minute read

This is it! You’ve made the decision to become a firefighter and now you need to pass the preliminary tests to enter the Fire Academy for your district. This is when you hear that you must pass the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), the physical entrance exam that is becoming more widespread in the firefighting community (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019). 

But what exactly is the CPAT and how do you pass it? This first post in our CPAT series will break down its events by analyzing its structural and metabolic demands so you have a better understanding of what will be required of you. This is the first step of how we approach all of our programming, by conducting a needs analysis to understand the structural and metabolic demands of your goals and/or requirements (Sheppard and Triplett, 2016).

The CPAT is a battery of physical tests strung together, meant to simulate various tasks firefighters may be required to perform on a call. The test must be completed in less than 10 minutes 20 seconds and is a pass-or-fail test (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019). If you do not meet the standards of any of the events, you will fail the entire test. So you must pass all the events and complete them in the allotted time in order to pass.

In addition to several clothing requirements, candidates must wear a 50 pound weight vest for the duration of the test. This is meant to simulate the protective gear and Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) that firefighters wear. For the initial stair climbing test, an additional 25 pounds is added to simulate carrying a fire hose or other gear that may need to be transported up stairs or up a ladder (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019).

Here is a breakdown of the CPAT’s events. We then assess the requirements of each below and summarize the total metabolic and structural demands of the entire assessment (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019). Note  that you are required to walk to the next event location and each walk is approximately 85 feet and self-paced, it does count toward your time but you are not allowed to run (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019). Take a look at a video of a firefighter performing the CPAT.

There are eight events in the CPAT. 

  1. Loaded stair climb
  2. Hose drag
  3. Equipment carry (farmers carry)
  4. Ladder raise and extension
  5. Breach
  6. Search
  7. Rescue
  8. Ceiling breach and pull

Event One: Loaded Stair Climb

The loaded stair climb is performed wearing a 50 pound vest and an additional 25 pounds, that’s a total of 75 pounds of additional weight which is nothing to sneeze at. The candidate has 20 seconds to “warm up” at the stepping rate of 50 steps per minute, at the end of the 20 seconds the three minute testing period begins. During the three minute testing period you are not allowed to grab the rail of the stair stepper for the duration of the test. If you do, you will get a warning, and you will only be allowed one warning before failing the event. Remember, failing any one event automatically means you’ve failed the test (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019).

Looking at this event from a structural perspective here are the main demands: You must be able to support 75 pounds of external load that will be primarily distributed across your upper traps, shoulders, and chest. Your legs must be able to support your weight plus the external load while stepping at a moderate pace for approximately three and a half minutes without egregious pelvic instability.

Finally, your trunk must  stay upright during this test to enable effective breathing and appropriately transfer and dissipate force to move effectively without overly fatiguing you for the remainder of the test. From a metabolic standpoint, this is mainly taxing the anaerobic system due to the time domain of just over three minutes and the amount of musculature involved (Herda and Cramer, 2016).

However, the intensity of this is relatively low and should not, I say again, should not get your heart rate sufficiently raised to wind you, so there is also an aerobic tax to this event (Herda and Cramer, 2016). Once the three minutes following the “warm up” period has elapsed you are able to step off the stair stepper, the additional 25 pounds is removed from your shoulders, and you walk to the next event. Remember, the clock is continuously ticking.

Event Two: Hose Drag 

The hose drag is the only event where running is allowed. Once the 85 foot walk from the stair climber is completed you will be required to shoulder a 1¾ inch uncharged fire hose with the nozzle in your hand and run 75 feet around a pre-positioned object. 

Then continue to a designated area where you then must take a knee and pull 50 feet of the hose toward you in a hand over hand fashion. Once the 50 foot marker on the hose crosses  the line, you then walk the 85 feet to the next event (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019). A little research let me find the average uncharged hose in this width weighs about 20 pounds (Fire Hose Direct, 2020). when bundled. Meaning the weight of an unfurled hose will be fairly light, well under a pound per foot and as this is likely to be completed on pavement the friction on the hose is negligible.

This event requires you to run with a light weight over your shoulder, but remember that you’re still wearing the 50 pound vest, decelerate to move around an object, accelerate again and once more decelerate to settle to a knee. Once on your knee you must pull the hose toward you. This event covers an undisclosed total distance, but my estimation is you’ll run about 100 feet in total This event must  be performed quickly, within 30-45 seconds if you’re moving fast. This is more of an anaerobic metabolic demand due to the time domains, and if you’re really hustling this will probably get your heart rate up for a short period of time (Herda and Cramer, 2016). Structurally, you have to run under load, take a knee in a stable position, and then pull a weight toward you, mainly working your grip, forearms, biceps, and delts. Once you’re done, it’s another 85 foot walk to event three.

Event Three: Equipment Carry

This is really a farmers carry. You are required to pick up two pieces of equipment off an elevated position meant to replicate a tool bay on a fire engine, set them on the ground one at a time, pick them up,  and then carry them 75 feet to a designated object, walk around it, and then 75 feet back to the simulated engine. You must place the tools back on the ground and return them to the shelf one at a time (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019). This tool on average weighs about 20-30 pounds.

This is an aerobic event as you are not allowed to run and it incorporates upper body strength, specifically traps and forearms, and stability requirements as you remove the tools, carry them, and replace them. You need a strong grip and shoulders to keep the tools secured as you move as well as trunk and pelvic stability to move efficiently. Improperly and unnecessarily dissipated force is wasted energy.

Event Four: Ladder Raise and Extension

This event requires you to extend 24 feet of ladder by pushing up on each rung of the extension until it is fully raised. Once that is completed you must raise the 24 foot fly section of an extension ladder by pulling on the halyard (a rope that you pull to extend the ladder) in a hand over hand technique until the ladder’s stops engage, and then lower the fly section (the top third of the ladder) in a controlled hand over hand manner using the ladder halyard (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019).

This is primarily a strength event that requires you to vertically press and pull. The vertical press is performed when raising the extension and the vertical pull requirement comes from the fly raising portion, it also includes an eccentric pull event as you must control the descent of the fly section. Your triceps, biceps, and shoulders are going to be used primarily during this event – noticing a theme?


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Event Five: Breach

This event is performed immediately after the ladder extension and fly raise. You are required to use a 10 pound sledge hammer to simulate a forcible entry through a door. You must strike a force entry prop until it is either fully depressed or until a buzzer is activated, indicating the event is over (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019). This is a strength event, requiring you to swing a hammer through the transverse plane and efficiently create torque with your hips and shoulders to accelerate the hammer enough to complete the breach simulation quickly. The more force you can generate the quicker this event is over, and you’re on a running clock, so speed is king.

Event Six: Search

The search event requires you to crawl through a dark tunnel in search of a victim while navigating a number of obstacles within the tunnel (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019). This is pretty straightforward. Low intensity, so an aerobic event, but you are required to crawl on hands and knees.

Your back needs to be strong enough to move efficiently with the weight vest both pressing and pulling on your spine while keeping your shoulders and hips stable and efficient. A strong trunk and stable shoulders are a must for this event. Once you’re done it’s an 85 foot walk to the penultimate test.

Event Seven: Rescue

Save Rescue Randy! Once you arrive at the start of this event you are required to move a 165 pound mannequin by dragging it 35 feet to a pre-positioned object, around the object, and 35 feet back to the start/finish line. You are allowed to grab the mannequin with one hand or both. The mannequin cannot touch the pre-positioned object (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019). This event requires you to drag deadweight with control and speed. There’s no real comfortable way to do this, so you’re either holding on with both hands and moving backwards quickly, or holding on with one hand and moving backwards or sideways in an effort to increase speed. I would recommend both hands and move backwards. This allows you to more evenly center your mass and move with speed while keeping a firm hold on the mannequin, controlling how it moves to avoid hitting the turning point.

A 70 foot drag of 165 pounds could get your heart rate up a bit, and this requires quite a bit of strength and coordination, placing this event solidly in the anaerobic domain of metabolic demands (Herda and Cramer, 2016).

You need to be competent moving backwards against a resistive load without falling.  This is a significant demand on your oft neglected posterior chain as you need to stay stable and simultaneously pull yourself and the Rescue Randy through the course with speed. The stronger and more powerful your hamstrings, glutes,  and spinal erectors are the easier this event will be. Once the mannequin is back across the line you move onto the final event.

Event Eight: Ceiling Breach and Pull

The final event is meant to simulate a firefighter breaching a ceiling to check for fire extension. You must use a pike pole and breach a simulated ceiling tile by pressing up against the plate until the tile is fully open, and then close it by lowering the pike pole while maintaining contact with the tile. You must then repeat this motion two more times before moving to the pull portion.

For the pull portion you must hook the prop with the pike’s hook and pull down until the prop can go no further, maintain contact with the prop and return it to the starting position and then pull four more times. You then go back to the push portion and complete another three reps of the push and proceed back to the pull for five more repetitions. You must complete the entire push/pull sequence four times (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019). This is a strength/muscular endurance event that requires you to perform a vertical press, a loaded eccentric of that press, and vertical pulls.

The weight looks to be around 20-30 pounds of resistance, which would be consistent with the other physical demands of the test. You must generate vertical force rapidly, as the sooner you complete the pushes and pulls the sooner your clock finally stops. You are allowed to adjust your grip, but you must maintain control of the pike pole at all times and if you drop the pole twice, you fail the test (Firefighter Ambitions, 2019). This will tax your grip and shoulders as well as the muscles of the back to include traps, latissimus dorsi, and rhomboids, which has been a recurrent structural theme within the CPAT. 

Bringing It All Together

Overall this test requires you to be aerobically fit and possess the ability to support significant external load while moving through all three planes of motion and along all three axes of movement. There are strength, power, and speed requirements, as well as coordination requirements, meaning this is a fairly holistic test of your ability to perform a variety of tasks commonly encountered by firefighters. The more efficient your aerobic system is, the more you’ll be able to rest and collect yourself for the next event during the 85 foot walks, especially the more strength and power focused tests since no metabolic system exists in a vacuum and the aerobic system replenishes the fuel for your anaerobic metabolic pathways (Herda and Cramer, 2016). You need considerable trunk strength, and enough musculature across your back and chest to support the loaded vest in a way that allows you to breathe and move efficiently. 

If you are someone that skips leg day then I have some bad news for you: this test will kick your butt (pun intended, I know what I’m about). The stair stepper is set at a moderate pace, but having an additional 75 pounds added to your frame means you need to have the strength and muscular endurance to last for the roughly three and a half minutes and then be ready for another three to seven minutes of work that includes walking, running, crawling, and generating some significant force efficiently. Try doing all that on worn out hips and skinny calves and see how unstable you feel – especially during the breach event. If your posterior chain is not strong and stable then you also increase injury potential. A broken ankle, dislocated knee, or groin tear is a great way to end your firefighter career before it even starts. 

So what do you do now? You prepare! The good news is we now know the demands of this test, and an holistic test demands an holistic approach to empower your performance. But how do you go about doing that? I’ll lay out a road map in the next blog post of how to prudently prepare for the demands of the CPAT. But if you just can’t wait that long then check out PA’s awesome program with the military service member/first responder athlete in mind, HAMR.

14 Day Risk Free Trial: HAMR Training

Related content:

PODCAST: PA Radio EP 376 – Extra Run and Conditioning Work for Military Athletes
PODCAST: PA Radio EP 354 – First Responder Wellness with Anette Zapp
TRAINING: Power Athlete HAMR (Holistic Athlete Movement Readiness)
BLOG: Demands of A Fire Fighter by Levi Garrett
BLOG: How A Toy Company Could Save the Coaching Industry by Cheyne Zeller

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SOURCES

1. CPAT Test: How to pass the Firefighter CPAT Test (TODAY). (2019, July). Retrieved from https://firefighterambitions.com/f/cpat-test-how-to-pass-the-firefighter-cpat-in-2018-and-beyond

2. Sheppard, J.M. and Triplett, N.T. (2016). Program Design for Resistance Training. In Haff, G.G. and Triplett, N.T. (Eds.), Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (pp. 439-469). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

3. Herda, T.J. and Cramer, J.T. (2016). Bioenergetics of Exercise and Training. In Haff, G.G. and Triplett, N.T. (Eds.), Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (pp. 43-63). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

4. Fire Hose Direct listing. Retrieved from https://www.firehosedirect.com/white-1-75-x-50-double-jacket-hose-alum-1-5-nh-couplings

AUTHOR

Randolph Barker II

RK is the head programmer and strength and conditioning coach for Evolution Wellness in Austin, TX. He grew up playing multiple sports and swam competitively throughout highschool until a shoulder injury sent him to physical therapy for an extended time where he became passionate about human movement and performance. RK earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology from West Point, where he also conducted original research and graduated with honors. While in the Army he also earned his Master of Science in Exercise Science with an emphasis on Fitness and Performance from Liberty University and used the knowledge and expertise gained to improve the fitness, survivability, and lethality of the Combat Medics he led. RK also earned the distinction of becoming part of the small community of Power Athlete Block One coaches and is passionate about helping young athletes prepare for the demands of sport at all levels and ensuring any and all military members and first responders are prepared for the demands of their professions.

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