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click to enlarge The forced-entry simulation, as demonstrated in a city training video
  • The forced-entry simulation, as demonstrated in a city training video

Margaret Maxwell was in the U.S. Army for six years. She's short, but one look at her arms tells you she works out plenty -- she spent six weeks exhausting her brother, who's a city firefighter, training with him.

But she apparently doesn't have what it takes to be a Pittsburgh firefighter herself. She failed a physical exam necessary to receive firefighter training.

"You should be judged on your strength, on your cardio, not your technique," she says. "Everybody on the same playing field."

The physical test is a barrier for too many women, critics say -- and it's one reason no women have been hired in the fire bureau since 1997.

Deputy fire chief Colleen Walz, the highest-ranking woman in the bureau, says the city's physical test is arbitrary, skewed toward men and a poor determinant of someone's fitness to be trained as a firefighter.

"The exam," she says, "has not been validated."

 

Every three years, the city compiles a new list of candidates eligible for the fire bureau's academy. Any city resident over the age of 18 can begin the process by taking a written civil-service exam. Those who score highly enough move on to a physical exam. If they pass that, their combined scores are ranked on a list: When there are openings in the fire bureau, the highest-ranked candidates enter the academy.

The physical test consists of five events: a flexibility test; stair-climbing; a "hose hoist"; a "dummy drag," in which candidates carry a simulated victim; and a forced-entry simulation. It's the last of these that attracts most of Walz's ire: In it, the candidate must swing a sledgehammer between their feet to move a weight along a metal track, called a Kaiser sled.

The test is "completely technique," Walz says -- it's a task most any firefighter can learn from training, even if they are smaller, as women are likely to be, and don't have the kind of brute force that allows untrained, larger candidates to complete the task. And it's not even a good technique: Walz says that if she saw someone using that technique during an actual fire, she would be "screaming bloody murder from the street."

Similarly, Walz also objects to having test-takers wear a self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, the use of which also requires separate training. A weighted vest, she says, tests if an applicant is strong enough to fight fires wearing heavy equipment. "Then, we'll teach you to use an SCBA" as part of the regular academy training.

The SCBA was a problem during Maxwell's test. Despite the smallest available tank being maximally tightened, the tank "was sliding up and down my back the whole time. On the Kaiser it was banging into my head."

Maxwell isn't the only woman to have struggled with such problems.

The city's most recent call for candidates, for example, drew 1,695 applications. Of those, 1,187 took the written test, and 1,092 passed, advancing to the physical exam. While the list wasn't completely final at press time -- residency of applicants was still being verified -- the unofficial tally had 11 women and 643 men passing that second test and being put on the eligibility list.

Statistics on how many women took the physical exams aren't yet available from the city for this round of testing, but in 2002, 25 women took the physical exam -- and they all failed. In 2005, 20 took it and two passed. And this year, the gender imbalance is likely to be even more lopsided when a new class of trainees is inducted. Among the 88 people with the maximum combined score, only one is a woman.

"One test is not going to diversify the fire bureau," says Chief Darryl E. Jones, who was hired as chief in 2007. "It's a continuous effort."

"Did it go well? Yes," says Tamiko Stanley, the city's equal opportunity employment officer -- the first person to fill that position, created in 2007. "We had the highest number of female applicants since the past three lists."

Indeed, the list compiled in 2005 had only two women on it, neither of whom scored highly enough in the rankings to get hired. The list from 2002 had no women.

Still, Stanley acknowledges there is room for improvement.

"We would have liked to see the individuals who got to the end of the tunnel a little larger [portion] of the pool."

 

One way to do that, Walz contends, is to abandon the current test in favor of the Candidate Physical Ability Test, or CPAT.

The CPAT was developed in the mid-'90s, when representatives of 10 different fire departments hammered out what an ideal test would look like. More than 3,500 jurisdictions nationwide are licensed to administer the CPAT.

"It's the most widely used, most widely accepted test in the U.S.," says Mark Angle, the assistant chief of the Phoenix bureau. "Every motion and every aspect of the CPAT is directly related to firefighting. Every move mimics a firefighting aspect. The proof's in the pudding. You don't see people lining up to complain."

Instead of the SCBA, candidates use a weighted vest. The CPAT includes eight events: a stair climb, ladder raise and extension, hose drag, equipment carry, a forcible entry event that involves penetrating a locked door and scaling a wall, searching through the dark for a victim, a rescue drag and a ceiling pull to check for more fire. There's no Kaiser sled, and the test mandates that candidates receive training, a mentor and at least two timed run-throughs. Pittsburgh's test didn't even allow any practice, until this most recent round of testing.

"The CPAT is not an easy exam, but it's transparent," says Walz, who came on as a firefighter before the CPAT was developed.

Neither Jones nor Stanley could say how the current test, which was implemented in 1997 and has not yet yielded a single new woman into the bureau, came to be.

When asked why Pittsburgh doesn't use the CPAT, Chief Jones says it's not his decision what test is used. Walz says use of the test is specified in the firefighters' union contract. Union officials did not respond to requests for comment.

"I would personally prefer to have a weighted vest," Jones adds. "The idea of the test is to test your endurance more than anything else. If you had a vest weighing whatever the airpack weighs, that would probably be more universal and still provide the same purpose."

The city has made some accommodations already. For the first time, this year's applicants were allowed a pre-test run-through using the equipment. Previously, they could only view a video.

"Our research has shown that females who had the pre-test training tend to do better on the final test," Jones says.

But such preparation only helps so much. "These events, you cannot practice," says Maxwell. "Who has a dummy to drag around?"

Stanley says that adopting the CPAT is "a lot of the discussion that we're having."

"They have the power to change it," says Walz. "They choose not to. I'm in my 22nd year. ... I just don't want to see that there's a fire department with no women."

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