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SWAT Team’s Physical Demands Studied at College of Education

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The sound of gunfire would briefly halt conversation as Dr. Mark Abel and his students discussed the progress of their research. They were on-site at a firing range and practice course to work with members of a special weapons and tactics team (commonly known as “SWAT”).

On this December day, clouds of breath could be seen in the frosty air as SWAT team members moved through obstacles to simulate high-risk scenarios. They paused on the course only to fire weapons at targets and drag heavily weighted mock-victims to safety.

A college professor since 2006, Abel’s job after high school was as a firefighter. He has combined that passion with his academic career to provide research and service to firefighters, campus police officers, and urban SWAT units.

Professor Mark Abel talks with SWAT team member
Professor Mark Abel talks with a SWAT team member

“Tactical personnel place themselves in harm’s way to protect our families,” Abel said. “Collaborating with these groups to enhance their safety provides me with an opportunity to give back to them.”

Tactical gear designed to protect them can be a constraint to the men and women on a SWAT team, who move efficiently and with precision.  That’s why Abel’s current study is looking at the effect of load carriage (tactical gear) on lower back stress and tactical performance (work efficiency and shooting accuracy). The study will determine which fitness characteristics are associated with a change in work performance due to the gear.

Master's students Matt Keelor and Jason Thomas
Master’s students Jason Keeler and Matt Thomas

Abel’s research allows graduate students working with him to enter the worlds of some of safety and law enforcement officials’ most skilled operations. Students positioned around the perimeter of the SWAT course used stopwatches to clock their movements. Others were charged with collecting blood samples and body measurements from subjects.

Master’s students Jason Keeler and Matt Thomas are the primary investigators for two projects with the SWAT team.  They were positioned on a perch overlooking the practice course.

“This position allowed me a birds-eye view of the firing range and all tasks involved in the obstacle course,” Thomas said. “It was important that I clearly see the officers during the entirety of the course in order to accurately time each task.”

The “obstacle course” is referred to as a Simulated Tactical Test (STT).

“It includes many of the possible movements and scenarios that a SWAT officer could encounter in a typical call-out such as scaling a wall, firing a rifle from a kneeling position behind cover, crawling under an obstacle, or dragging a fellow officer or civilian out of harm’s way,” Thomas said.

Professor Mark Abel, graduate students and SWAT team members pose for a photo after completing research for the day.
Professor Mark Abel, graduate students and SWAT team members pose for a photo after completing research for the day.

By precisely identifying how the equipment affects the SWAT operators, the research team will provide recommendations for exercise programs to better prepare for the demands of the equipment and job. Plus, they can provide suggestions on how to move more efficiently or use alternative equipment to reduce lower back stress.

Keeler has likely discovered a field of work he will continue to study. He has been accepted into the college’s Ph.D. program and will work with Abel. Eventually, he would like to begin his career at an institution that will allow him to continue his research and teach students.

“I have a belief that keeping your head in research will help you become a better teacher, and I hope that is what I’m able to do,” he said. “After starting down this road, I have found myself loving the work more and more. If I help provide some information that can help prevent an injury, I would feel fantastic about my work.”


To learn more about the UK College of Education’s  Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion, visit education.uky.edu/KHP/