After about one year in office, Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch is nearing the fulfillment of a campaign pledge: a program to encourage officer fitness.
Couch said he hoped to have the policy implemented in 2013, but the year was crowded with challenges and initiatives, from upgrading an aging patrol fleet to setting into motion new North Hall and South Hall precincts.
There also were a lot out of details to iron out in crafting the policy, he said.
“I’m hoping to have the new policy out to the employees by some time in March, and hope to start the assessments in the late summer to early fall,” Couch said, adding, “We had to make sure the program is fair and has attainable goals.”
Training Director Lt. Michael Myers is one of the instructors, and was a point man on crafting the policy.
“This course is one of the things that Sheriff Couch ran on, was starting a physical fitness program,” Myers said at the office’s Allen Creek training center. “He approached me because I’m a health and wellness instructor and I’m out here exercising on a regular basis.”
The program seeks to encourage officers to be physically fit per the demands of the job, he said.
“They’re put in situations where they have to be able to affect arrest at times where people are putting up moderate to heavy resistance,” he said. “It becomes a safety issue.”
Officers’ fitness will be evaluated and measured with tasks including pulling a dummy out of a building to simulate someone hurt or unconscious, pushing/pulling a weighted sled, sprints, pushups and situps.
“We’ve tried to come up with a program where the tasks that we’re going to ask them to do mirrors things they might have to do out here on the street,” he said. “It’s very job-specific stuff.”
Even seemingly routine physical job requirements will be tested.
“We unfortunately can turn on a blue light and be in a gun fight, and so the sheriff understands that we need to have our officers fit to the point where they can get out of that patrol car without having to pull themselves up out of that car,” Myers said.
As an incentive to work out, the policy makes physical fitness one of a factor among several in performance evaluation and promotion.
“What we’ve done is we’re taking this program and we’re marrying it up with part of the whole promotional process,” Myers said. “Points will be awarded for how well they do in each particular discipline and that will go along with their firearm scores, their education ... and it will also go along with their POST training — how much police training they have.”
Myers said the goal is full implementation of the policy in two years.
“We’re going to phase it on over the next couple of years for existing employees, but we’re also going to use it as a guideline in hiring new employees,” he said.
The sheriff’s office isn’t alone in its desire to promote a healthier workforce, he said.
“You’re seeing more and more companies realize the benefits of having a fit employee,” Myers said. “They’re out of work a lot less; there’s less chance of being injured on the job; they’re more productive.”
Couch also touted benefits including lower insurance rates and less absenteeism.
Myers said it’s important to be tenacious, but realistic, with fitness goals and progress.
“What we try to tell our folks is, you didn’t get out of shape overnight, and you’re not going to get back into shape overnight,” he said. “Just do something — a little bit at a time — and eventually you’ll get back to where you want to be.”
Lack of fitness is a national phenomenon in law enforcement, Myers said, with studies indicating more than 50 percent of officers are out of shape.
Myers said he often has observed an inclination to push fitness aside with time-crunched schedules.
“I think people as a norm fall out of routine, and they find themselves busy doing other things and they kind of put it on the back burner,” Myers said.
Myers admits he’s not immune to those same setbacks.
“I’ve probably dropped 50 pounds in the last year,” he said. “You just get busy, and you just come to the realization that you have to make some ‘me’ time in order to get back into shape.”
He said the policy should not be construed as punitive, but rather a goodwill effort to empower deputies’ well-being.
“This isn’t something where if you can’t do this, you’re going to be looking for a job,” Myers said. “The biggest thing here more than anything is Sheriff Couch just cares about people and he wants to see them be healthier and live a long productive life. That’s his biggest goal in the whole thing.”
The fitness tests are measures, not full workouts for the purpose of fitness improvement, Myers said. It’s up to the officers to commit time to work out.
Couch said office workout spaces at the jail and at the planned South Hall precinct, paired with community ties, will facilitate the policy.
“We’re hoping at some point to have a workout room at our main headquarters when we get that established,” he said.
Area gyms have offered discounted rates with minimal or free membership offers, Couch said. County-owned community centers are free for county employees to use.
Deputy Chad Mann said Couch has been a vocal and positive force by acknowledging the efforts of deputies who kicked off new routines prior to the policy’s official implementation.
“I’ve seen him encourage several different officers about that too, especially the ones who are already working on it,” he said.
It’s a point of pride, Couch said, to see the ideas of the policy being embraced.
“I know a lot of the officers here started running teams and they’re entering 5Ks, so it’s nice to see everybody actually taking that initiative before this policy goes into place to be healthier and able to perform better,” he said. “I’m very proud of that.”