Test Questions | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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

Two weeks ago, City Paper reported that the physical exam Pittsburgh uses to evaluate potential city firefighters -- a test critics say discriminates against women -- was specified in its contract with firefighters. That, it turns out, isn't true. So who is responsible for devising the test the city currently uses?

"The Civil Service Commission has final say in the scoring of all exams," says Todd Siegel, employment manager for the city. But how the test arose -- and why the city still uses it -- is a little murkier.

Civil-service regulations require that the fire bureau offer a written and physical exam administered to potential firefighters every three years. Candidates who pass both exams are put on a ranked list: The highest-scoring candidates are offered slots in the training academy as positions become open.

The physical exam, implemented in 1997, involves five tasks meant to simulate firefighting activities. The test was developed in the mid-1990s, when the city decided the existing test wasn't reliable enough. The new procedure "is an arduous test, but it's an arduous job," says Siegel.

In designing those tasks, "We're testing for the abilities and characteristics a firefighter needs to possess," says Janet Echemendia, president of E.B. Jacobs, the State College-based firm that consulted on the current exam. (E.B. Jacobs does not administer the current test, and Echemendia stressed that her comments apply only to creating tests in general.) "The first step is job analysis, interviewing job incumbents" about the skills needed. Time standards were set by having active-duty firefighters run through the tasks. But candidates "are not required to have technical knowledge" in order to pass.

Even so, no woman has been hired into the fire bureau since the new test was adopted. Deputy Chief Colleen Walz says the test puts too much emphasis on technique -- which, she says, is what the academy is supposed to be teaching. Walz favors switching to the Candidate Physical Ability Test -- a standardized test that is the most widely used exam in the country.

Siegel confirms that before the most recent round of testing "we had a committee that discussed recruitment [and the possibility of] going to a CPAT."

In fact, to help make that decision, the city was prepared to survey firefighters about their job descriptions, Walz and Siegel both say. For the test to be changed, the union, the fire bureau and civil service all must agree. But the union, they say, objected because the evaluations asked for information that identified individual firefighters.

Did that sound the death knell for the union to sign off on changing the CPAT?

"So they claimed," says Seigel, speaking of the union, but he declined to elaborate.

"We're not against using [the CPAT]," says Ralph Sicuro, recording secretary for the Pittsburgh Fire Fighters I.A.F.F. Local No. 1. He says he can't say what the official reason for not adopting the CPAT was. But unofficially, Sicuro says, the problem "was the cost": to become a limited-license testing site, the city would have to pay a yearly fee of $5,000 to the International Association of Fire Fighters, which licenses the test.

Administering the CPAT also requires buying proprietary equipment.

Siegel says another logistical concern was the time factor. "The union was in favor of the CPAT," he says. But "We had to hurry up and get this done, we were without a hiring list."

It will be some time before the city gets another crack at the problem: The test won't be offered again for another three years.

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