GULFPORT — It was like an Outward Bound adventure on the shores of Boca Ciega Bay.
About a dozen Gulfport police officers huddled together, shivering in the near-freezing temperatures early Wednesday morning, to cheer on fellow officers as they navigated the obstacle course set up to determine their fitness for the job.
There was an enviable camaraderie among the law enforcement team as they, some in winter hats and gloves, others in sleeveless shirts, took turns running and climbing and crawling and dragging through a series of timed tasks required to stay on the force.
Police Chief Robert Vincent, peering out from under the top of his gray hoodie, was the head cheerleader.
Everyone who took the test that day — about half the force — passed.
"If you look at the course and the times, you'll see it's not that challenging," said Vincent.
"But it's enough to know where your weaknesses are. And, it builds teamwork," he said.
Vincent, who in September mandated the annual test, was the first to take it. He finished in a respectable 5 minutes and 9 seconds. The required time is 6 minutes and 4 seconds.
"Police officers must be prepared to meet demanding physical challenges at any moment. Their lives and the lives of those they are sworn to protect depend on their ability to stay in the game when the worst of the worst happens," Vincent said when he implemented the testing.
If the officers waiting to take the test were scared they wouldn't pass, they didn't show it. Not even the two female officers who had to drag a dummy that weighed more than they did.
The dummy is a 150-pound "man" that cost $1,100 and was paid for with drug forfeiture funds.
Police Officer Jen Crowson, who is 24 and joined the force in April, said the most difficult part was having to run after dragging the dummy.
"It was hard to carry," she said.
And the unseasonably cold 38-degree temperature didn't help.
"After you finish, it kind of hurts your respiratory system," Vincent said. "The hardest part is trying to get over the 24-inch hurdle after dragging the dummy."
Police Officer Zack Mills, who works the midnight shift, was pumped up. In shorts and a sleeveless shirt, he wasn't going to let anything beat him — not even the bitter cold.
"It wasn't easy," Mills said after passing the test. "The dummy is like a real person. It's easier to drag a sled."
Although many police departments require candidates to pass a physical test before they are hired, very few require yearly re-examination.
"We're the only police department in Pinellas County to do this, but the Sheriff's Department, the Highway Patrol and about 40 police departments across the state do it," Vincent said.
What happens to an officer who doesn't pass?
He or she is placed on light duty and retested in 30 days.
An officer who fails three times is subject to discipline, up to and including termination.