'By the end, their legs are give out': Nearly 200 try out to be Columbus' newest firefighters

tstevens@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 3, 2013 

By noon Wednesday, Rachel Young will find out whether she's another step closer to being a Columbus firefighter.

The 2011 Purdue University graduate is one of nearly 200 applicants who will run through a rigorous obstacle course this week at the Civic Center, just to get a chance to interview with the Fire Department. Called the Candidate Physical Ability Test, the course consists of a grueling 10-minute-20-second challenge which discerns whether each candidate is physically and mentally prepared to fight fires.

Young almost passed the test on a practice run, but failed to finish the last section within the allocated time. She was five "pulls" away — having barely touched the metal hook used for tugging and pushing 20 pound weights to the appropriate lever — when time was called.

"I've been working out and knew what to expect, but it's still tough," she said. "I'm glad I got to have a practice run and get an idea of what it's like before the real thing."

A young firefighter's journey starts with the CPAT, which starts with a StairMaster — not the cardio workout familiar with gym enthusiasts, but a 3-minute-20-second climb participants must perform while wearing a 75 pound training vest. To make the task even more difficult, potentials cannot avail themselves of the machine's handrails.

Training Division Chief Tim Smith said the first task is when most applicants lose the bulk of their energy.

"They have to stay on this without falling off," Smith said. "By the end, their legs are give out. That's when the rest of the CPAT starts."

Still wearing the weighted vest, candidates must pass a number of other obstacles, such as navigating a lightless tunnel with mounds and protrusions meant to check depth perception. Later, applicants drag a 175-pound pound dummy through a short path and back before performing the final "lift-and-pull" portion.

Each candidate gets two practice runs before their final test. If they pass on a practice test, they need not come back for a final scheduled run-through.

Smith said most who take the CPAT pass — about 70 to 75 percent. In the past, applicants had a 50 percent shot at meeting the goal. This was before the national test mandated that participants be given practice runs.

"One of the fastest guys we've had finished with about 3-minutes-30-seconds left," Smith said. "That was Craig Stahl from Station Ten."

For those not prepared, the assessment can be daunting. Paramedics stand by for each new contender, ready to give first aid should someone pass out, throw up or start to have a panic attack.

Training Division Lt. Gene Hull said some challengers have trouble in the dark tunnel, where climbing over and under obstacles in the dark can become a disorienting and anxiety-inducing experience.

"Some of these guys panic, spin around in the corner and come out of the wrong side," Hull said. "Then we have to break their heart when we tell them they have to go back in and come out the right side."

Passing the CPAT is no guarantee that an applicant will get to don the coveted boots, but it will cover that requirement for a year. After that, potentials still have the interview to navigate, and have to be certified as EMTs either before or shortly after being hired. Then, there's the availability of positions. Some years the Fire Department has 20 positions to fill. Others, none.

Still, the opportunity is worth it for Young. She set her sights on public service as a child when she watched the two World Trade Center towers fall on Sept. 11, 2001. Later, Young joined the Army's Reserve Officers' Training Corps, and became a First Lieutenant on graduating college. She now works as a military probation officer for the reserve.

"It sounds cheesy, I know," Young said. "But it gave me the passion and the fuel to do this kind of work. I've always had my mind set to protect and serve."

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