NORFOLK, Va. — The city Fire-rescue Department has issued a safety stand-down on a physical fitness test after a 52-year-old firefighter suffered a heart attack while trying to complete it in late April.
The department is reviewing the test and won’t require firefighters to take it until at least the fall, Chief Jeffrey Wise said.
It’s at least the second time since 2012 that a serious medical problem has been linked to the test, according to James Tarantino, the president of Local 68 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. On March 19, 2012, a 54-year-old firefighter suffered a fatal heart attack after climbing a ladder earlier in the day in preparation for the test.
The department began requiring the test in 2012. Previously, only recruits had to pass a fitness test.
Wise said he’s looking to improve the health of the department, and the test mimics the one given to recruits. It measures firefighting skills, and participants must navigate a maze and climb part of a 100-foot ladder while wearing about 40 pounds of gear.
It was developed by the department over time and is not based on tests from outside groups or associations, Wise said.
Recruits must climb up and down 40 feet of the ladder in one minute, 59 seconds, he said. Veteran firefighters have to climb up 60 feet in one minute, 19 seconds.
“There’s been no punitive action based on any of this,” Wise said. “But it has helped us as far as a culture change.”
In a video message to firefighters sent just before the April heart attack, Wise said they needed to complete the test within two attempts.
Firefighters who failed to do so had to meet with the chief to discuss how to improve. In the video, Wise acknowledged that firefighters might be concerned about whether they would lose their jobs.
“That truly to a great extent will fall on each individual,” he said, “because my goal in all of this will be to get you to a point where you meet this minimum fitness standard and that you can go out and perform your job well and be healthy for years and years to come.”
Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Suffolk and Portsmouth do not have ladder testing for their veteran firefighters. Portsmouth Deputy Fire Chief Michael Stockton said his department does an annual stress test and skills test.
He declined to comment on Norfolk’s test but said there are legitimate reasons to do ladder testing. Each department needs to validate the fitness tests it uses, he said.
“They have different standards, personnel and age groups that they are dealing with,” Stockton said.
Since the test started in Norfolk, it has caused dehydration and injuries, Tarantino said.
Earlier this year, after a firefighter was found to be dehydrated after the test, Tarantino contacted the City Attorney’s Office.
In early April, Assistant City Attorney Jack McCloud went to Fire Station One to observe the test.
Wise said he didn’t hear anything else until he contacted the City Attorney’s Office after a firefighter suffered a nonfatal heart attack while taking the test April 24. Wise said he ordered a halt to the tests immediately afterward.
Tarantino said he wants the test to be validated by “an independent vendor who does this specific test and has no relationship with either party. Validation also means that the test is not discriminatory based on age, sex and racial factors.”
Wise said he’s evaluating how to administer the test and what might need to be changed.
He said he is considering checking firefighters’ heart rates and other vitals just before the test.
The 2012 death led to a routine investigation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The report does not mention the fitness test.
It said it was “unclear what role, if any” climbing the ladder in training played in triggering the heart attack.
The report made one recommendation: that the department phase in a mandatory, comprehensive wellness and fitness program for firefighters.
Battalion Chief Julian Williamson said the department was already “moving in that direction” when the recommendation came down.
“Right now, we do have a program in place that we’ve started,” he said.
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