BY RAUL A. ANGULO
I joined the Seattle (WA) Fire Department in 1980. I had just gotten out of the U.S. Coast Guard and was in the best shape of my life. I soon started competing in triathlons—that was the fitness rave at the time. Then I got married to a wonderful woman, who was also a chef. Mmmm, did I eat good! Then the three kids came, and finally gravity took over.
What used to be in my chest area started accumulating in my gut area. Come on! You know the story: Boy meets girl, boy falls in love, boy marries girl, girl cooks for boy, boy gets fat. And, I have been struggling with my weight ever since. To avoid caving into my moments of weakness (hamburgers, pizza, pie, ice cream, and cookies), I gave my crew permission to fat-shame me. So, they started yelling at me, “No fat captains on Engine 33! No fat captains at Ladder 6!” Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I worked out just enough to maintain where I was at, But, I knew my triathlon days were over. I didn’t really like the treadmill; the stair-stepper was a little more challenging, but I quickly became bored. I was more for slow, steady, pace-of-job workouts. I would wear my self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and walk up and down the training tower stairs—not for speed, just for time. When I was transferred to Ladder 6, I would sometimes climb the ladder in the hose tower or set up a 35-foot ground ladder behind the station and climb up and down with an SCBA for a given amount of time. It was during the last couple of years on the job when I thought I was going to die climbing the ladders with the equipment on real fires that I knew my days were numbered, and it was time to retire. Trust me, you’ll know when that day comes.
Being the captain of a ladder company, I did not want to be the one so out of shape that I could no longer climb a ladder with full gear and equipment. I think that is what prompted me to start my own ladder workout routines. So naturally, when I saw the Jacobs Ladder at FDIC International, it caught my eye. I thought if I had one of those at my station, I would have worked out even more … but we’ll never know.
The unit is also cleverly named. Jacob’s Ladder refers to the Bible story found in Genesis 28:10-22. Jacob was the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. He was on the run, fleeing from his twin brother Esau, who vowed to kill him for tricking his father into bestowing the birthright, inheritance, and blessing that were rightfully his. On the way to his uncle’s house to hide, night fell, and Jacob laid down to sleep. In a dream, he had a vision of a ladder (or a stairway) going between heaven and earth, and angels were ascending and descending the ladder. This was called Jacob’s Ladder or the stairway to heaven.
NOT A TREADMILL OR STAIR-CLIMBER
Jacobs Ladder is a serious cardio climbing machine. Unlike treadmills or stair-climbers, which are usually motorized, the ladder rungs are a self-propelled, continuous climbing treadmill so the climber sets the pace, which provides for a faster heart rate and high-intensity workout. The ladder is set at a 40-degree angle, ideal for a low-impact workout, relieving the stress and pressure to the lower back and hips. The 40-degree angle is a natural climbing position for many aerial operations, and at this angle there is low impact on all the joints while allowing for a long and dynamic climbing stroke to ensure a full range of motion workout.
A belt is worn with an attached cable that controls the resistance mechanism. The higher you climb up the ladder, the more the resistance is decreased. So, the higher you go, the faster you go. Speed range is between 25 and 160 steps per minute. This is great for two-minute interval training or for a steady climb for time. The handles offer you the ability to simply climb the rungs—like an escalator or stair-stepper for a lower body leg workout—or you can grab the rungs hand over hand and climb the ladder for a full body workout. The rungs are made of hard solid maple wood and are spaced 12 inches apart—the same spacing used for fire department wooden ladders. Since the ladder is self-propelled and not motorized, the ladder accounts for higher energy expenditures compared with other cardio machines. In a study completed by Louisiana State University, Jacobs Ladder was proven to have lower impact on the joints and had a higher calorie burn rate than a treadmill workout.
Jacobs Ladder will require a ceiling height of at least 8½ feet. The length is 76 inches, and the width is 31¼ inches. The frame is welded tubular steel, and the ladder weighs 325 pounds. The maximum user weight is 350 pounds, so that covers all the other fat captains I know.
The digital readout includes the following:
- Elapsed time.
- Feet climbed.
- Rate (feet per minute).
- Calories burned.
- Heart rate (when used with chest strap).
The unit retails for around $4,200.
HEALTH, WELLNESS, PHYSICAL ABILITY
Health and wellness, including fitness training, are finally mainstream in today’s fire service. Events like skyscraper stair climbs, stadium stair climbs, the Firefighter Challenge, and other cardio-fitness and weight training exhibitions are extremely popular. Many department policies require a mandatory one-hour fitness period during the work shift.
The Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) entry exam, which most fire departments require for application, is a series of job-related events. It was developed to apply a certifiable standard for competency and fairness. For example, when I was testing for fire departments in the late 1970s, many physical ability tests required a timed one-mile run. After legal court challenges that argued a firefighter would never have to run a mile during a fire emergency or nonemergency activity, the mile run was deemed “not job-related,” and many cities dropped the event. With additional court challenges to the physical ability testing criteria, the CPAT eventually evolved. The CPAT consists of eight physical events:
- Stair climb with weighted vest and shoulder weights to simulate SCBA and hose load.
- Hose drag.
- Equipment carry.
- Ladder raise and extension.
- Forcible entry.
- Ceiling breach and pull.
We can all agree that these physically stressful events performed in a nonstop series are truly job-related. Well, the same goes for Jacobs Ladder. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ladder makes its way into a future version of the CPAT.
Even though I gave my personnel permission to fat-shame me into working out, I really did not want to be known as the fat captain … and I wasn’t (I carried my weight well). But I was overweight by a lot. Fifty-four percent of the fire service has cardiac issues. Of the 100 average line-of-duty deaths that occur during the year, half of them are from heart attacks and not from direct results of the fire. That means there are a lot of fat bodies out there besides me.
For those of us who are overweight, you don’t have to tell us; we already know. It’s always on our minds. I know I will never do another triathlon, climb Mount Everest, or participate in extreme sports. But, as a firefighter, I should be able to perform all the tasks that are required for the job. I should be able to go through all the CPAT stations as well, if not better than the day I joined.
I might be able to laugh off being called a fat captain, but being called a ladder captain who can’t climb a ladder? Or a captain who can’t do the job? That I would not be able to handle or laugh off. I’m poking fun at myself, but my message to you is this: Being out of shape is no laughing matter when you’re a firefighter.
Jacobs Ladder is not just a cardio machine. It’s the kind of machine that challenges your ability to do your job. It challenges your mettle. It almost dares you to climb it to see if you have what it takes to still be a firefighter. Those are challenges firefighters just can’t resist.
RAUL A. ANGULO is a captain (ret.) of Seattle (WA) Fire Department Ladder Co. 6 with more than 37 years of service. He is an international author and instructor and has been teaching at FDIC International since 1996. He is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board.