There are some professions that should be as selective as possible: doctor, teacher, crocodile hunter and, of course, firefighter. But when asked why the brand-new test the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department gives to potential firefighters is so damn easy, Pat Marsolais, who heads up the department's Civil Service division, didn't exactly have a reassuring answer.
"Why does it have to be hard, so long as it's job-related?"
That is the thrust of the debate about the new physical agility test recruits must pass before they start at the academy. At first glance, the test is easy. According to the consultant who designed the new test, out of the 272 candidates who took the exam this spring, 263 passed it, a success rate of 97 percent. But nearly all of the candidates who flunked the test are women, who collectively had a far lower success rate. That puts the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department in a bind. Make the test more challenging and you're going to have even fewer candidates from the fairer sex at a fire shop that is only 4 percent female. Keep it the same and you may have some brand-new firefighters who you wouldn't want putting out a birthday cake, much less a towering inferno.
"We're hiring people who are physically incapable of doing the job," says Mike Buehler, a captain with the department and president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association. "It's a safety issue."
Interestingly, Sherrie Wilson, the first female firefighter in Dallas, is not exactly sticking up for the firefighting sorority. Wilson, whose son now works at the department, said that she spent months running and lifting weights to prepare for her test. She wound up fitting in with the guys because she passed the same test they took. There's no reason why other female candidates can't follow her example, she says.
"If they haven't worked out hard enough to pick up a ladder and maneuver it, if they can't pick up a dummy and carry it up a few flights of stairs, then we don't need them," Wilson says. "I don't want little Miss Muffett sitting beside me on a four-alarm fire."
On Monday, the city's Civil Service Board postponed a vote that would have ratified the new test, although they hinted that they might opt to scrap it. "If you have a fire in your house you want to know that they're going to save you," said board member Steve Sanderfer at the meeting. "I don't want a test that's easier just so more people can do it."
But that's exactly what the city had in mind when they changed the old test, which had a pass rate of around 50 percent, to the far easier new one. After being questioned by the board, a Civil Service Department staffer reluctantly told them that a more stringent national test many firefighters prefer to the current one fell out of favor. How come? "Because it had adverse effects on women," she says. But a former battalion chief who spoke at the meeting said that the department should simply do a better job recruiting qualified women, including targeting former high school and college athletes.
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"There is another way to skin this cat other than lowering our standards," he said.
Chris Hornick, a bookwormish consultant who developed the test, naturally defended it, in part by pointing out that many current firefighters flunked when he experimented with it on them. How easy could it be? But Buehler said that what many veterans have lost in fitness, they make up for with experience. For a firefighter straight out of the academy, however, their physical prowess is their best asset. The new test features exercises in confined spaces and low-visibility situations and includes stair-climbing and ladder extensions. A national test, which many Dallas firefighters prefer, features more strength-oriented exercises, including a portion in which candidates have to break a hole in a ceiling large enough to insert a ladder. That's not in the new Dallas test.
Wilson says that the department could make certain accommodations in its testing policies that will allow more women into the academy. After all, she says, a female firefighter who can unscrew the door to a burning room in a matter of seconds is no less qualified than a burly guy who kicks it down on the second or third try. This is not a job based only on brute strength. Still, she says, you have to have some basic standards. As proof of the new test's flaws, she cited the example of the woman with burns on her hands who flunked the old test but somehow managed to pass the new one. "Is that person going to pull her fair share?" Wilson asks. "That is heavy equipment."
New Fire Chief Ed Burns is likely to recommend to the city's Civil Service Board that the department use a different examination. The city designed the new test before Burns became chief. "He would like something in between the new and the old," says Lieutenant Joel Lavender, fire department spokesman.