Training to Fight Fires: The Red Card Pack Test
By: Brittany Snyder, BLOC Intern
The Pack Test is a physical fitness test for any firefighters who have the potential to respond to a wildland fire incident. To earn a Red Card, I needed to complete the test in under 46:15 (adjusted for the high elevation of Santa Fe, NM). You’re not allowed to run. One foot must always have contact with the ground. Before the test administrator started the stopwatch, I looked over at our Training Division Chief, also participating, and called out my prediction. “39 minutes,” I said with a nod.
Training to Fight Fires: The Red Card Pack Test
On an unusually cold 38-degree morning in May, I donned my 45-pound department-issued weight vest, secured the Velcro around my chest and popped in my earbuds. I opted to wear a t-shirt and gloves this year and to skip the extra layers. The vest would trap body heat around my core, but my fingers would start to sting as I headed into the wind. This would be the 15th time that I had taken the annual Work Capacity Test (commonly known as the Red Card Pack Test) for the fire department.
The Pack Test is a physical fitness test for any firefighters who have the potential to respond to a wildland fire incident. The standards are put forth by the US Forest Service for current and prospective firefighters. Wildland firefighting can be very arduous and physically demanding, so the purpose of the Red Card Pack Test is to ensure that responders have the necessary work capacity to work effectively, whether the assignment is digging with a hand tool, chopping wood or packing heavy loads up a hill. The test is intended to be taxing and challenge your muscular strength, endurance, and aerobic capacity.
To earn a Red Card, I needed to complete the test in under 46:15 (adjusted for the high elevation of Santa Fe, NM). 46+ minutes for a 3-mile course, wearing the extra 45 pounds might sound like a long window, but here’s the kicker: you’re not allowed to run. One foot must always have contact with the ground. So, we’ve devised an awkward shuffle that allows you to move hastily while staying within the parameters.
Before the test administrator started the stopwatch, I looked over at our Training Division Chief, also participating, and called out my prediction. “39 minutes,” I said with a nod.
My approach to the pack test is always the same:. Pick a pace and stick with it. That’s really it. I’m not trying to break any records or compete with anyone, but as something I do annually, it’s a good opportunity to check in on where my fitness is.
I vaguely remember doing the first one in the Fire Academy at age 20. It was sandwiched somewhere inside my 13-week fire academy when I was supposed to be in the best shape of my life. Plenty of running, countless pushups, and lots of time spent running the three-story training tower. Unfortunately, at that time, barbells were not commonplace, and they were not a component in the fire academy. Even at the end of the academy, I didn’t have the back or leg strength to pick up the 185-pound dummy (a movement which closely mimics a deadlift). I had to drag him by the neck across the pavement.
Throughout my 15 years in the fire service, I’ve had experience in many areas of fitness. For two years, my entire athletic focus was on figure skating. When I wanted better conditioning, I did Boot Camp classes. After having a baby, I found Crossfit and killed myself 6 days a week, trying out competitive programming at one point, sometimes doing 2 workouts per day. Crossfit gave me my first exposure to the barbell, and for that, I am very grateful. But when I started to notice that nothing had really progressed over the past few years, skill-wise or strength-wise, I began to wonder, why am I beating myself 6 days a week with no improvements to show for it? I’m not any better of an athlete than I was last year. Or the year before that.
Then, two and a half years ago, I discovered Starting Strength, and I have never looked back.
Strength has been the primary focus of my athletic training since then. As I write this, I’m an intermediate trainee on a 4-day split. Matt Reynolds is my coach and has me train two upper body days and two lower body days, alternating between volume and intensity work for each lift.
I really haven’t done much for cardio, though Reynolds understands that it’s an element of my job and has taught me how I can incorporate come cardio finishers that won’t conflict with my recovery. I think I’ve done 5 runs in 2019 so far, and nothing over 5 miles. I probably should be more diligent about it, but I sleep okay knowing that I’m a female who can deadlift more than quite a few of my male colleagues.
Leading up to the Pack Test, my training goals were to keep pushing the intensity on my core lifts, while also tackling some knee cave that pops up during heavy squats. I was chasing a 155-pound bench to earn my Starting Strength Club sticker and had just hit a 315 deadlift a few weeks prior, another big milestone in my training.
But now, back to that chilly May morning, with the 45-pound vest weighing on my shoulders. As it started to get uncomfortable, I thought back to how I set up under a squat bar: traps mashed together tightly, making a nice meaty shelf. So I did that under my pack, where most of the pressure was. It was enough to redistribute the weight temporarily and bring some relief.
Due to the nature of the awkward shuffle, my hips never fully open and they’re stuck in some degree of flexion for the entirety of the test. Fortunately, as a barbell athlete, my hip muscles have never been stronger and tougher. A slight forward lean helps create momentum to carry me forward but also makes for a lot of stress on the calves and erector muscles as my posture isn’t fully upright. You know what makes for a seriously strong set of erectors? Heavy deadlifts, thank you very much.
When I considered slowing down, I gave myself a mental pep-talk: Brittany, you’ve been under significantly heavier load and in far more uncomfortable situations during your workouts compared to this right now. This vest is 45 pounds, the same as your empty barbell. I framed the test as a series of moments, each feeling like a moderate level of discomfort compared to the fight of finishing a slow, heavy squat. Or grinding out a max effort deadlift like I’d had in my training only days ago. I didn’t focus on how much still lay ahead or the challenge of the test in its entirety. I stuck with my pace, putting one foot in front of the other, reminding myself that I’ve done much harder tasks in the gym.
I aimed for 39 minutes. I came across the finish line at 35:45. The fastest pack test I’ve ever completed.
My cardiovascular ability wasn’t the deciding factor in making this test successful. Rather, it was the huge jump I’ve made in core and leg strength over the past two years by squatting and deadlifting. Every step around that course was more submaximal than any year prior. My ability to endure hardship has most definitely improved, as has my tolerance for getting uncomfortable. My central nervous system is also adapted to having an added load on my skeleton. My training has offered my perspective, and that perspective makes the harder stuff in life a lot more feasible. This is an invaluable trait as a firefighter, whether in the wildland setting or in the structural setting (where our bunker gear and breathing apparatus weigh an additional 49 pounds).
As I doffed my pack and gloves, I was feeling very pleased to know that my work capacity has generally improved over time. It’s not the fastest pack test in the department’s history, but that’s irrelevant. It’s MY personal best. I am so grateful that 15 years into my career I’m getting BETTER and not worse, and that is thanks to how I train under the guidance of my Starting Strength Coach at Barbell Logic Online Coaching.
Brittany is a Captain for the Santa Fe Fire Department in Santa Fe, NM. In addition to her 16 years in the fire service, she has experience coaching strength athletes, group classes, and fire academy cadets.
Brittany holds an Associate of Arts Degree in addition to her Paramedic license. Her background also includes Crossfit Level 1, Crossfit Strongman, and ACE Peer Fitness Trainer certifications.
If you ask her, she’ll tell you in her younger days she wasted a lot of effort trying to get fit/thinner/better at her job through boot camp classes, spinning classes, figure skating lessons, weight machines, cardio machines, training for half marathons and adventure races. While fun, none were as impactful as Starting Strength. Her one regret in life is not getting under the barbell sooner. She has experience competing in strongman and powerlifting competitions and is working diligently towards becoming a Starting Strength Coach.