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Walking a five-metre right-angle beam.

PCT gone mad?

Sprains, muscle and tendon damage, dislocated limbs, broken bones, heart conditions and extreme anxiety… not suffered on the job, but while doing Police’s physical competency test. Is it time for a review of the 33-year-old PCT? Ellen Brook reports.

The PCT is broken. That is the view of a senior member of Police who says the test is out of date and not designed to progress Our Business or look after staff.

At the heart of the problem, he says, is that the biennial burst of energy is an anaerobic, rather than aerobic, test that doesn’t align to higher overall fitness or modern police values.

“Fit people can fail it and unfit people can pass,” he says. “It’s not a measure of fitness and doing a test every two years doesn’t promote fitness. Additionally, some physically competent people are being injured doing the test.”

It’s old-fashioned, he says, in more ways than one: “It doesn’t encourage diversity or cater for the inclusion of women returning after parental leave. And it doesn’t encourage long-term habitual fitness.”

There is a view now that the risks to staff, both physically and mentally, from doing the PCT under time pressure, outweigh its value to the organisation.

The PCT itself is getting on in years… It was introduced in 1986 in response to the unprecedented pressures of the 1981 Springbok Tour, during which many police officers who were drafted onto the frontline suffered injuries. It was also when a progressive reduction in the retirement age from 60 to 55 began.

It has been tinkered with, with variations for age and gender and adjustments to the height of the beam and for those over 50 to elect whether or not to scale the wall, but it is essentially the same test that officers did in the late 1980s.

Many aspects of policing have changed since then, including removal of the retirement age, advances in technology, the advent of body armour and the emphasis on health and safety in the workplace and encouraging diversity (including of height, ethnicity, gender and age – just look at the variety of recruits coming through the college in the past few years).

Some members of Police believe the PCT is one area that has not kept pace with those changes.

It would be reasonable to expect that injuries suffered doing the PCT, including, in some cases, heart attacks and seizures, must be of concern to Police.

At the time of going to print, an Official Information Act (OIA) request to Police for details of injuries related to the PCT was overdue and had not been fulfilled.

Nearly a decade ago, a similar OIA request by The Dominion Post in 2010 showed that “dozens of officers” had been injured doing the test. Those injuries included sprains, muscle tears, broken bones and dislocations.

At that time, Police were relatively lenient with staff who, for whatever reason, did not pass their PCT. That changed in 2013. From March 1 that year, officers without a current PCT were withdrawn from the frontline and told not to interact with the public. Just over 300 staff were removed from their duties, unable to be deployed operationally until they complied with the new rules.

On the surface of it, the Police edict is reasonable. Mike Bush, who was deputy commissioner at the time, said the changes meant, “the public can be assured that all our frontline staff are fit and able to carry out their responsibilities”. He added that frontline staff needed to be “fitter, faster and stronger than ever before” and in “peak physical condition”.

Unfortunately, the more rigid approach to suitability to do the job also caught out people who were still capable of doing their job, including frontline duties, but who, for a variety of reasons, could not pass the test.

The PCT had, almost overnight, been turned into a blunt tool that became the only assessment of a member’s worth.

There were also fears expressed that it was simply a way to force older people out of the job. It’s surprising the number of people who say that when the subject comes up.

The Police Association has represented members who have found their careers and livelihoods on the line for the sake of a few seconds or an age-related drop in flexibility or upper body strength.

The association has supported the PCT in principle and encouraged members to engage with physical training instructors (PTIs) to help them through. But it also believes that decisions about operational capability should be made on an individual basis because the PCT may not be the whole picture of an employee’s physical competency to do their duties under the Police Act.

Association employment advisers note that the way Police is enforcing the PCT is not what was intended under the Police Act, particularly as it relates to discretion. The act allows the Commissioner to use discretion if it is clear, and he is satisfied, that a member can still do his or her job.

Under Section 74 (2)(a) of the act, if the Commissioner wants a member to leave Police, the Commissioner must be “satisfied that the employee is incapable of performing competently his or her duties and any other duties that may reasonably be required of the employee from time to time”.

It’s the Commissioner’s job (Section 72 (1)) to prescribe “standards of health required of staff” and “to ensure that they are fit to perform competently their duties and any other duties that may reasonably be required of them from time to time”. Under Section 72 (2), those standards can be applied to all staff, OR “to any particular class or description of Police employees, whether designated by reference to level
of position, duties, or otherwise”.

The Commissioner appears to be relying on the PCT as the sole judge of a constable, sergeant or senior sergeant’s suitability, rather than assessing each individual’s competency to “do their duties or any other duties [reasonably] required from time to time”.

For a representative organisation such as the association, it comes down to consideration of the wellbeing of members, both physical and mental, and the serious matter of exposure to potentially career-ending and life-changing injuries.

PTIs can, and do, help people pass the test, providing advice on technique and training regimes. There is, however, a difference in the PCT courses between those done outdoors and those done in gyms – gyms are reportedly easier due to the springier floor.

Here are four stories from the frontline told by police officers who would all be considered physically competent by the standards of the public, but who, for various reasons, have struggled with the PCT. A common theme is that the PCT has had a disproportionate impact on their lives.

Names and some details have been changed to protect their privacy. As one noted, not having the PCT can make staff feel like second-class members of Police until they pass it again – or they buckle under the pressure and leave the job.

 

Denise, 40

Since having children, I have struggled with the wall. I have passed, but I would call it borderline in terms of the time.

Now, my main problem with the PCT is psychological. I get so wound up in the weeks before I have to sit it that I feel physically sick. I’m getting nervous just talking about it.

Weeks before it, I can’t sleep. I’d rather run a marathon than do the PCT and it’s only going to get worse as I get older, but the PTIs’ attitude seems to be “just get on and do it”.

I love my job and I am fit. I go to the gym, sometimes twice a day. I can run. It’s not my fitness that is the problem; it is upper body strength for the wall.

I really struggle mentally, and have lost confidence and keep expecting to fail.
It’s just as bad for men. I’ve heard about some staff taking Ventolin to open up their lungs.

I have never in my career had to climb over a wall. I’ve done plenty of running and tussling with people, but that’s not in the PCT.

The wall is just so difficult that it might push me out of the job. It will be the one thing that will make me go.

It makes me sad. We do all the training, but the turmoil and anxiety associated with it are very bad.

There must be a better way.

David, 51

I’m generally fit and into walking and biking.

In two PCTs, I’ve pulled my hamstring doing the ditch jump.

I’ve always had issues with the wall because of my weight and the technique I have been using. I’m over six foot and weigh about 115kg at the moment, but I passed it when I weighed 107kg.

I pretty much developed a phobia about the wall and approached it with absolute dread. Fortunately, I only have to touch it now.

I don’t think the PCT is really applicable to what we do. We’re never going to push a trailer or run along a beam. You might have individual components of the test in the course of your work, but not all at once.

We have an ageing police force, with more staff aged 40-plus, but we have a young-person’s fitness test. From 40 onwards you start to get niggles and injuries.

There should be another form of fitness testing.

I’m here for the long haul and hope to do another 15 years in Police.

Also, getting you to sign a form straight after you finish saying you’re okay is not a good idea because the injuries from doing the PCT often don’t manifest themselves till some time later.

Roger, 53

I’ve suffered significant knee injuries while doing the PCT.

I am still quite capable of frontline work, but, given the proven undue risk to me of the PCT, why can’t something more appropriate be found to assess my physical competency?

Many staff, including myself, regard their careers as being on a two-year tenure dependent on the ability to pass the PCT. That’s not good when forward planning or growing aspirations.

So much has changed since the test was introduced. It is far from a realistic compilation of elements encountered on the frontline in 2019. It is very much a rarity these days that, with all our appointments, anyone goes over a fence in a foot pursuit.

Yet, we are required to do a test that purports to replicate frontline work, but without our vests and appointments that we are required to wear whenever we step out of the office.

I note that Police has dispensed with the swimming criteria for entry into Police to cater for different cultural backgrounds. I assume that being able to swim is not an expectation any more. To that end, why would we all be expected to jump a fence now?

I understand the rationale behind the PCT. I served in 1981 during the Springbok Tour and I support the concept of a fit-for-purpose police force. But this test is outdated and has been counterproductive to a fit and deployable force given the amount of injuries and stand-downs of members.

I am no stranger to exercise. I played rugby until I was 50 and have competed in endurance events. What I am concerned about is the risk to my joints and future mobility for three or so minutes every two years until my planned retirement at 65.

Patsy, 38

I was kicked off the roster, not because I couldn’t do my job, but because I couldn’t jump a ditch or go over a wall.

I suffered an illness requiring surgery and then had knee issues that also required surgery and I was in rehab for nearly a year.

Eventually, I passed the PCT and was operational again, but the next time, I failed it because of my knee, although I have since learnt a technique for getting over the wall.

It took me nearly a year to pass again and I couldn’t leave the office in all that time.

I spent hours training to do the long jump and studying sports performance instead of putting time and effort into skills that would have been relevant to my job.

The PTIs should look at a collaborative approach and at peer review around achieving deployability. If you show improvement, they should keep giving you opportunities.

I now have the PCT, but the fear of it has become more stressful than my actual job.

It’s also not aligned with equity or diversity. The subtext is that Police want to get rid of people like me. And, I have to say, I am getting rusty at my job because of the long periods when I wasn’t doing it, when I was not able to leave the office.

It makes me sad. We do all the training, but the turmoil and anxiety associated with it are very bad.

Tell us your views. Do you think the PCT is a necessary evil or a flawed relic? Email editor@policeassn.org.nz.

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