Tough enough to be a St. Paul firefighter? Our 5-foot reporter tried

MPR News' Nancy Yang drags a body dummy.
MPR News' Nancy Yang drags a dummy. She wants you to know it's a lot harder than it looks.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Do not underestimate the dummy.

I did, and it nearly took me down. And then it almost took my eye.

That last part might be an exaggeration, but let me explain.

MPR News photojournalist Evan Frost and I had the chance recently to work out with St. Paul firefighters and academy recruits who were leading fitness boot camps for the next generation of firefighters.

They're doing this because next month, the department will begin accepting applications for firefighters.

It's a big deal, because it doesn't happen every year and when it does, it's always an extremely competitive process. Anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 applicants throw their names into the helmet, and the hiring process involves written and physical tests.

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Zee Warholm-Wohlenhaus carries a metal fan.
Zee Warholm-Wohlenhaus carries a metal fan across the gym. "It was challenging but good," Warholm-Wohlenhaus said of the workout.
Evan Frost | MPR News

And that's before you even get to the interview.

The physical performance test this fall, for those who make it that far, is no walk in the park. It's made up of five exercises, including hauling a 58-pound hose bundle up five flights of stairs and carrying a 50-pound fan 150 feet — and recruits must finish the entire obstacle course in seven minutes or less.

Oh, and they also must do it while wearing 49 pounds worth of gear.

Sound daunting? It is. But that's where the spring fitness boot camps come in.

To give people an idea of what they're in store for, fire officials are holding a series of workout sessions through the end of April. These exercise drills involve planks, lunges — lots of lunges — carrying heavy equipment and pretending to break down doors, all in rapid succession. Think 30 seconds of push-ups, 30 seconds of burpees and 30 seconds of rest, and repeat.

People interested in firefighting do a variety of exercises.
Firefighters, recruits and people interested in firefighting do a variety of exercises, including planks, squat jumps, the Keiser Force Machine and dragging body dummies.
Evan Frost | MPR News

On the day that Frost and I showed up to see whether we could keep up, we were joined by about two dozen others.

And when I say keep up, I mean it. Some of the people at the fitness session looked like they had been training for weeks; Frost and I only had two days.

Oh, and I'm 5-feet-1-inch and weigh far less than the dummy I would soon be required to "save."

The Keiser sled

Recruit Brandon Springsted gives Jareck Morrison of Red Wing, Minn. tips.
St. Paul Fire Department recruit Brandon Springsted gives Jareck Morrison of Red Wing, Minn., tips on using the Keiser machine.
Evan Frost | MPR News

This machine simulates breaking down a door with an axe or sledgehammer. In this exercise, you're supposed to use an 8-pound shot mallet to drive a 150-pound beam 5 feet.

This is the exercise I was sure I'd fail. I figured this piece of firefighting was all about brute strength — but I was wrong.

That doesn't mean you don't need upper body strength but passing this forcible entry exercise also comes down to posture and body position. A few people that I thought would have no trouble struggled because they weren't holding the mallet the right way, or they were hitting the beam too high.

Or maybe they had the same problem I did.

I was so afraid of whacking myself in the shins — or somewhere worse with the handle — that my grip was all wrong and I kept scooting my feet too far back. But after Alan Anderson, the recruit leading my group, gave me some pointers, I managed to move the beam about 2 feet.

Hey, it's a start, right?

Walking lunges with hoses

How do firefighters train for all those stairs they need to climb? They run up the IDS Tower in downtown Minneapolis, which at 57 stories, is the tallest building in the state.

Celeste Sawyers does lunges with a fire hose draped over her shoulder
Celeste Sawyers does lunges with a fire hose draped over her shoulder. "I feel great!" Sawyers said after the workout.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Or, they can do lunges. A lot of them. While carrying a giant hose. That weighs 58 pounds.

I'll take the lunges over the IDS Tower.

In this exercise, we had to balance said hose on our shoulder while lunging about 100 feet across the gym.

I almost collapsed on the first step because I attempted too big of a stride, not to mention I was already off balance with the hose resting on just one shoulder.

Small steps, my instructor told me, baby steps. Don't make the mistake of lunging as far as you can to cover more ground quickly because you might not come back up.

I was a little slow overall, but — I did it!

Nancy Yang does lunges with a hose bundle.
MPR News' Nancy Yang does lunges while carrying a 58-pound hose bundle. Feel the burn!
Evan Frost | MPR News

Now I'm ready to take on the IDS Tower.

Just kidding.

Victim rescue

And here we are at the dummy.

Now out of all the things I thought I'd be able to do, I somehow got it into my head that this would be the easiest for me to pull off. Not because it's a simple thing to do — the dummy weighs 175 pounds — but I had rationalized that if I was strategic about how I lifted the dummy, I could drag it the required 100 feet.

How silly I was.

For 30 seconds I tried to lift the dummy from under the arms and behind. And for 30 seconds, the dummy would not budge. It was almost as though it was glued to the ground.

I repositioned my arms, hoping that would do the trick. (It didn't)

I gave myself a pep talk to psych myself up: "Come on! You can do it!" (Which didn't work)

 Joe Magee lifts and drags a 175-pound body dummy.
St. Paul Fire Department recruit Joe Magee lifts and drags a 175-pound body dummy as Mark Yang drags his own. "Seeing it on film is different than actually doing it," Yang said.
Evan Frost | MPR News

I even considered saying a little prayer, in the hopes that Patron Saint of Minnesota, Prince Rogers Nelson, was listening. (Maybe I should have. He did answer the call when the Vikings played the Saints.)

With 10 seconds left to go, Anderson, the fire academy recruit, advised "use your legs!"

"I am!" I wanted to yell. But I didn't, because I'm a Minnesotan and we don't yell at strangers, least of all strangers who are only trying to help us.

Now to clarify, firefighters and recruits do not absolutely have to lift the dummy to drag it. They must first attempt it, but if they can't or if they lose their grip, they are allowed to drag the dummy by the collar or the arms. This doesn't necessarily make it easier, since there's more surface area to drag, but it is an option.

I got a second shot at the victim rescue after my first failed attempt. This time, Anderson and another fire academy trainee "helped" me lift the dummy and I began the slow walk toward 100.

I only made it 50 feet. I was so beat I couldn't even drag it by the collar the rest of the way.

A dummy waits to be dragged around.
During the physical test, candidates must "save" a 175-pound dummy by dragging it 100 feet. If you look closely, you can see it laughing at MPR News' Nancy Yang.
Evan Frost | MPR News

I'm pretty sure that dummy was — and still is — laughing at me.

My eye!

Now you're probably asking, "Didn't you say the dummy almost took your eye?"

After the victim rescue, I moved on to the next two workout stations, but I was still preoccupied with the dummy drag. As in, I should have been paying attention to trying to catch a weighted ball falling toward my head instead of wondering what I could have done differently to lift a 175-pound mannequin.

A sledgehammer and two medicine balls sit in the parking lot.
A shot mallet and two medicine balls sit in the parking lot. MPR News' Nancy Yang hit herself in the face with one of these balls (it's OK, you can laugh).
Evan Frost | MPR News

Which takes me to wall balls (squatting with a medicine ball, then popping up while throwing the ball up on the wall and catching it on the rebound). As you've probably guessed by now, instead of catching the ball, it smashed into my face.

It wasn't my finest moment but after checking for blood and finding none, I figured I was fine and went on my way.

Except that two hours later when I got back to the office, I began noticing the loss of some peripheral vision in my right eye. Then came the headache.

So, I did what seemed like a great idea at the time: I went home, swallowed an aspirin and took a nap.

It was only when writing this story a week later and Googling "loss of peripheral vision" (I know, I know, don't judge me) that I wondered if I had suffered a mild concussion. (If there are any doctors reading this, please send me your diagnosis. Thanks!)

But the good news is that no, I didn't go blind. My vision and the headache cleared up by the end of the day. And all has been well since then.

Try it

Mike Burns, a volunteer firefighter from Bloomington, does a farmer carry.
Mike Burns, a volunteer firefighter from Bloomington, does a farmer carry to one end of a gym and back.
Evan Frost | MPR News

I asked Anderson, the firefighter recruit who had been training me, for his honest opinion at the end of the session: how did I do?

"You did good," he said.

Is that Minnesotan for "you were awful, get out of my sight?"

Then he elaborated: "The main thing we want to see is people with a drive and the motivation to not quit. You gotta push as hard as you can. You didn't just sit down and relax. You're like, 'I'll try it, I'll be open to the ideas.' And push your body," he said. "It's a hard thing to learn. Some people just don't have that in them. You gotta learn to push and push."

Whew, I feel better.

And now, over to you. If you've ever wondered if you could pass the test or you're considering applying, here's your chance. The Fire Department is hosting at least two more fitness expos before the application period closes April 30:

• 7 p.m.-8:15 p.m. March 28 at The Athlete Lab, 3225 Country Drive, Little Canada. Space is limited so register here.

• 10 a.m.-noon April 14 at North Dale Recreation Center, 1414 St. Albans St. N., St. Paul. No registration is necessary but you can RSVP here.

Six-year-firefighter Luke Swoboda holds a sledgehammer.
Six-year firefighter Luke Swoboda holds a shot mallet before demonstrating how to use the Keiser machine. It trains firefighters in breaking down walls, making them move a steel sled along a track by hitting it with a sledgehammer.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The Fire Department has also been making an extra effort to diversify its ranks, focusing on recruiting women and people of color. Out of 428 firefighters on staff, only 18 are women. Meanwhile, just about 10 percent overall are African American, about 9 percent Hispanic and about 20 percent Asian American.

This Saturday, the department will host a hands-on women's expo at the St. Paul Fire Training Tower. On Thursday night, they'll host their first career info session for people of color.

And, if you're up to the challenge, applications will be accepted beginning April 2.

But remember: Do not underestimate the dummy.