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Both sides of the PCT fence

One size of physical testing obviously doesn’t fit everyone in Police, but if you don’t fit the set standard, should you be in Police?

Police answered that challenge in 2013 when it introduced a strict policy of standing down those who, for whatever reason, are unable to pass the two-yearly physical competency test (PCT).

Last month, Police News looked at the fairness of the stand-down policy and posed the question of whether, in the modern era of more diversity in policing, it was time to review the requirements of the 33-year-old PCT.

We shared the stories of four members who had all struggled with, but passed, the PCT, and felt their careers were stuck in a two-year holding pattern at the mercy of a test that they felt was being used as the sole gauge of their value as police officers.

The reasons some people have difficulty with the test vary from lack of necessary upper body strength to scale the wall (often an issue for older women) to a range of injuries (sometimes suffered during the PCT), especially knee joints, and a fear of exacerbating them.

Official Information Act figures released by Police last month showed that about 100 staff a year are injured doing the PCT (425 in total from 2015-2018), or 4.5 per cent, with most injuries among the 40-59 age group.

This compared with 1057 injuries (2015-2018), 11.2 per cent, for other Police training where the majority of injuries were sustained in the 19-29 age group.

The most common injuries suffered during either training for or attempting the PCT are damage to muscles, tendons and nerves (181 of the 425 injuries), closely followed by sprains, strains and twisting (155). Most of the injuries are to the knee, leg and shoulder, in that order.

Superintendent Mel Aitken, Police national manager safer people, has confirmed that Police will be conducting a review of the PCT next year, but details of what it will cover are still being developed.

What is apparent from the feedback we have received (see Letters, p24-27) is that even those who fully endorse the PCT think some aspects of it should be altered.

Some of the feedback was from people who had, much to their distress, resigned prematurely because they weren’t able to achieve the PCT in the required time.

How does this fit with Police rhetoric about retaining experienced members?

Here is an overview of some of the main points from all sides of the debate.

Keep the PCT

  • Most members have no difficulty passing the PCT and it is a robust gauge of officer fitness for duty.
  • It’s not hard if you do regular workouts and learn the right techniques.
  • If you are fit, you should have no problems.
  • The PCT is a good incentive to keep people active and healthy; we don’t want an organisation of chubbies.
  • We’re all doing the same job; there should not be exceptions for older people.
  • Those who can’t pass “need to get their heads right” with the help of the PTIs.
  • If you can’t pass, I don’t want to work with you.
  • The PCT is a core competency that allows everyone to see how fit police are.

Keep it, but tweak it

  • Alternatives that should be considered are the beep test, cycling/rowing tests and health checks.
  • Those returning from maternity leave could assist with admin work until they can get up to the required standard.
  • The test should be done wearing HAP body armour, boots and carrying an M4 rifle, not in PT gear.
  • Bring back the 2.4km run and
    push-ups.
  • The times should be the same for men and women.
  • The test should be annual, or even every six months, because waiting two years to assess fitness is too long.

Rethink the PCT

  • The PCT has not moved with the times in terms of fitness testing. The test is designed for “cookie cutter” young cops, not older members or women returning from having children.
  • The anxiety suffered in the lead-up to the test causes unnecessary and debilitating stress.
  • Being stood down from core roles makes members feels worthless, under valued and “second class”.
  • It’s an inflexible policy given a narrow-minded interpretation by managers, resulting in an atmosphere of “lower-class police officers”.
  • The current policy is destroying the confidence and livelihood of individuals who are not “ready to be put out to pasture”.
  • If all the obstacles can be completed proficiently, just not in the required time, why is there still no way a member can be deployable?
  • How does this fit with Police rhetoric about retaining experienced members?
  • Physically unfit inspectors are exempt from the PCT and can stay in their jobs.
  • It’s designed to weed out older cops.

A valuable tool

One member of Police who has a close professional interest in the PCT is physical training instructor Pete Wells, based in Wellington. Here, he outlines his views of the test that he says is well proven as being fit for purpose.

As one of the original Police physical education officers (PEOs), it was disappointing for me to read criticism of the PCT — a proven, critiqued, validated and valuable tool that has changed the health and wellbeing of operational staff whose physical standards are the envy of police jurisdictions throughout
the world.

Since implementation of the PCT, there have been two reviews by Otago University (1986 and 2011) that have validated it as having a high correlation to being fit for purpose.

This year, New Zealand Police recruitment sponsored Bond University Australia to investigate the correlation between our physical appraisal tests (PAT) and the PCT. The report supported the PCT as “fit for purpose”, concluding that a good fitness standard equates to fewer injuries and better health outcomes. It also concluded that those who struggle in the PAT will struggle with the PCT.

What has been lost over the years is the original ethos of the PCT – “Win the grapple!” – communicated to me many years ago by Detective A J Crewdson, a member of the Police team that helped develop the test.

The PCT and its associated obstacles were designed to replicate the energy requirements an officer may need to save him or herself – the 2min 30sec to 3min 30sec required in a grapple or to effect an arrest before back-up arrives. In effect, to give yourself a fighting chance.

Appointments may not always work in certain situations. The well-worn argument voiced in the Police News story of “I have never had to climb a wall” is irrelevant. The upper body strength and stamina required to negotiate the wall is the issue. These strength and stamina components are certainly of value when effecting an arrest and are replicated as such.

Since its introduction in 1986, policing and the PCT has changed, however, the health and wellness requirements of the individual members has not. Fit for life.

As research and science have proved, the PCT is still fit for purpose in spite of a small number of our staff who are not.

NZ Police has introduced fitness incentives in the form of a PCT payment on completion, as well as four days’ leave over the two-year PCT period. Police has been accommodating and supportive to members failing the test by offering programmes and advice to assist in achieving it.

In the 2011 Otago review, Dr P Hancock wrote that, “while the PCT appears to be in good shape we note that the fitness of an aging and less physically active police force is likely a more significant concern for the New Zealand Police. Our recommendation is that this wider issue could be addressed by the organisation encouraging a more active lifestyle and also by demanding better compliance with the current PCT and fitness standards”.

The latter recommendation occurred with the introduction of the Health and Safety in Employment Act and the new compliance regulations for deployability.

When you enter an organisation such as the Police, Army, Navy or Air Force, you know what you sign up for, and the staff quoted in Police News have known the fitness requirements since they were recruited. What has changed?

Every member in Police is a volunteer.

To question a fitness standard that has a 99 per cent pass rate in Wellington District, due to a minority of people struggling with the test, probably needs to be addressed by themselves in relation to application, training intensity, health and lifestyle adjustments.

The PCT is “fit for purpose.” It is up to our staff to ensure they are. The PEOs are here to help them.

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