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Chicago Fri Jul 22 2011

The Problems With the Fire Department's Physical Abilities Test

Only 116 members of the Chicago Fire Department are women, which represents about 2 percent of the workforce. A class action suit filed against the Fire Department claims that the test administered on potential firefighters discriminates against women through a physical abilities test (PAT).

The plaintiff in the case, Samantha Vasich, passed the written test in 2006 and took the physical test in 2010, only to be informed that she failed the PAT.

Although it is necessary that a firefighter should be able to physically perform their job, a problem is how the test is administered. The Chicago Fire Department administers their own test, the PAT, which differs from a standardized test created by the firefighter's unions, called the Candidate Physical Abilities Test (CPAT).

"Instead of putting up a ladder, they have you do this lifting exercise," said Susan Malone, one of the attorneys representing Vasich, about the PAT. "For paramedics, instead of pulling a stretcher, they have you doing a gym exercise. These tests are not job related."

The PAT has four parts that include an arm lift, arm endurance test, hose drag and high rise pack carry and a leg lift. The leg lift was added in 2007 and had previously been used in testing for CFD paramedics applicants, a test that the lawsuit claims has also affected female applicants.

In a video from the California Fire Fighter Joint Apprenticeship Committee that is available online, the steps of the CPAT are shown in detail. The eight parts of the CPAT include a test where applicants must simulate climbing stairs while being weighed down in a realistic manner, a part where applicants must run with a hose before dragging fifty feet of it over a finish line, carrying saws that would be needed in certain situations, raising and extending ladders, practicing getting into a building by force, searching for victims in cramped, dark spaces filled with obstacles; dragging a dummy and practicing a ceiling breach, which would be used in the event that fire fighters needed to see where else a fire would be occurring.

Although the CPAT has more parts, all of them are directly related to duties a firefighter must carry out while on the job. As for the PAT, three of the four tests sound more like something done on a test in a physical education class.

According to information given to the press, Vasich worked with a personal trainer who created a plan that would prepare her for the test. This included wearing a vest filled with weights to simulate the weight of a firefighter's uniform and breathing apparatus while working out on a stair climber as well as dragging a bag of sand, which was to prepare her for the hose drag portion of the test. It does not seem as though there are practice runs or tests for firefighter applicants in Chicago, while in the Los Angeles are testing sites do allow applicants to do practice runs of the CPAT.

What is more interesting about the PAT is that the test is used to determine who is allowed into the fire academy. According to Marni Willenson, another lawyer representing Vasich, those accepted into the fire academy go through more training that includes both physical and work-related training.

"There is no evidence that this test has to be administered at a hiring stage," said Willenson.

The CFD is not new to lawsuits regarding their tests. Thirteen years ago, a suit was filed against the fire department claiming that African-American applicants had been discriminated against in the written test. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the applicants. But as for the current lawsuit, Willenson says that it could be historic if it is decided the CFD needs to drop its current testing procedures and allow for more women to enter the fire academy. The current testing methods are the big problem in the case not only because they can be seen as a method of denying women the ability to become firefighters, but there also seems to be a lack of reason for justifying the current methods used in the test.

"It doesn't correlate to successful performance on the job or success in the academy, for that matter," said Malone.

Currently there have been no other plaintiffs added to the case, according to Malone.

Malone also added said that a lengthy litigation process is going to try to be avoided, both in the interest of taxpayers and the applicants.

Although unable to comment on the specific allegations, City of Chicago Law Department spokeswoman Jenny Hoyle said, "The fire department does take diversity very seriously. They are committed to providing equal opportunities for those that apply."

Hoyle also said that the City's Law Department is working with the fire department to review the allegations.

According to both Willenson and Malone, the Chicago Police Department has a test that involves physical exercises, including a timed run, but the test is conducted in a manner that every applicant is aware of how they are doing. Similarly, the CPAT is run in a way that those taking the test are aware off how much time remains or if they've failed. According to the complaint, Vasich was informed that she failed the PAT, but not what part of the test and only in a letter sent to her.

Should the lawsuit resolve in the plaintiff's favor, more women could qualify to work as firefighters, diversifying the CFD. Similarly, a pending case from 2008 involving the testing of paramedics applicants for the CFD could reveal similar testing problems.

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Brendan Kelly / July 24, 2011 8:09 PM

The problem with the PAT, is that its WAY too easy. She probably passed, but the city cant have a 100% passing rate, and her number was up. The city doesnt tell you about what you got wrong on ANY test. They just fail you and tell you to move along. If you sue, you will get paid to move along. This is how they keep control of the hiring/promotional process. They have the people they want to get in, and the quotas they want to meet. They have zero interest in getting the best/brightest people for ANY city job. I would even go so far as to say they prefer hiring dumber people. They are less likely to protest city abuses because they know they will lose the job/salary, that they otherwise would not get in the private sector.
City jobs are merely job banks; positions to be doled out to keep the democrats in power, the clouted flush with money, and the masses pacified so as not to upset the applecart.

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