A new program for Ashland policemen will ensure they are fit for duty, literally.
This fall, Ashland’s police force will begin conditioning exercises on an obstacle course designed especially for law enforcement. The course, currently under construction at the Town Shop off of Vaughan Road, contains scenarios police officers could encounter any given day in the field.
According to Chief Douglas Goodman Jr., keeping Ashland’s officers in shape means keeping them safe in the line of duty.
“If I’m not looking after these guys’ health and their wellness, then I’m failing them,” Goodman said. “I’ve got to take steps to make sure that my officers are healthy and are prepared to meet whatever tasks are going to face them during the course of their workday.”
Goodman said that fitness and law enforcement are no strangers – the job is a very physical one – however, officers are often torn between two extremes: sedentary, motionless work and very active, physically demanding tasks.
“These guys ride around on a 12-hour shift and 11 hours, 58 minutes might be sheer boredom, sitting down in a car in this very sedentary way, and two minutes of it might be getting out and running or responding to a…high-stress call,” he said.
In those circumstances, Goodman said an officer’s heart rate increases and their blood pressure rises, situations where it’s important to be physically fit to handle those bodily stressors. Data expose the dangers of going into the field ill-prepared for the job’s strenuous demands. According to Goodman, since 1990, 295 police officers have died in the line of duty from heart attacks alone.
“I want to do the best job I can to make sure that doesn’t happen here,” he said.
In response to growing concern from the law enforcement community about work-related illnesses and injuries, George Mason University’s Dave Bever, a professor of health education, established in 1989 the “LawFit Program,” designed to increase the cardiorespiratory efficiency, muscular strength, muscular endurance, lean body mass, and flexibility of officers.
Few departments in Virginia have annual minimum physical fitness requirements, the Hanover Sheriff’s Office among them.
The LawFit obstacle course combines years of research that looked at the tasks a police officer will have to perform any given day. These include activities such as scaling a 5-foot wall, climbing through a window, sprinting, jumping, climbing stairs, and properly identifying a suspect while in the middle of the exercise. The course concludes with a dry-firing obstacle, where officers have to place an unloaded handgun’s barrel through a 6-inch ring and “fire” twice using both hands.
While there is a standardized time to complete the LawFit obstacle course, Ashland’s department plans to take this established program and customize it for their own officers.
Over the next five years, officers will be timed as they go through the obstacle course twice a year. Those times will be recorded, and after five, years, Goodman said his department should have the data it needs to set a time threshold going forward.
“This will give us the opportunity to evaluate our officers and develop our own pass or fail time based on our data sets,” Goodman said.
Goodman plans to have Bever analyze Ashland’s data. Then, starting in July 2018, officers will have to complete the course at or below the established threshold on an annual basis.
If an officer fails the first time, they will be able to retake the test twice. After a third failing time, Goodman said that officer’s future employment with the department will have to be evaluated.
Goodman said his officers have been briefed on the program and fully understand what it entails.
“I dare say the vast majority, if not all of them, are in support of it,” he said.
Goodman said fitness has been an initiative of his since 2007 and of the previous chief, Tom Clark, before he took the helm. That year, the APD started holding Weight Watchers meetings.
“It wasn’t because we had anyone that was grossly overweight, we just had some people that were interested in improving themselves,” Goodman said.
The APD had its first trained fitness coordinator in June 2009 and began voluntary assessments the following January. Of 19 responses to a March 2011 Virginia Municipal League survey, all officers agreed that fitness is important and related to their job. Another 68 percent reported they work out at least twice a week. During another survey of APD employees, 87.5 percent agreed an agility course would be the best measure of fitness for duty.
Goodman said that he cannot recall an instance in Ashland when an officer’s poor physical fitness impeded their job performance.
“I don’t want it to get to that point,” Goodman said. “This is not a problem I’m trying to fix.”
That is reflected in the many physical fitness activities members of the APD participate in. Officers routinely compete in extracurricular athletic events such as 5K or 10K races, or the annual Torch Run, benefitting Special Olympics. Some members of the department, including Goodman, have also completed marathons or triathlons.
“I’m not mandating the agency to do these things; you don’t have to be an elite athlete to be in law enforcement,” Goodman said. “What we’re looking for now is to take that grassroots effort that we’ve had for four or five years now and move it to a more formal level of establishing a baseline of minimum fitness.”
However, Goodman hopes that his department sees the value in staying in good shape.
“The culture of fitness and health is more important to me than a mandatory program, because that’s going to carry on a whole lot further,” he said.