Fire fighting test may suffer from biases

Individuals who wish to serve in positions that protect the public safety must be able to meet the requirements of those positions. However, public officials also must make sure that the requirements of those positions are clear. Public officials also must ensure that the requirements are reasonable, not either excessively difficult or easy.
On Oct. 15, St. Paul held a test for individuals wanting to serve as firefighters. On Aug. 6, a letter was sent to all of the applicants who had registered for the written test detailing the requirements for the physical part of the exam. Then, only five days before the physical exam, the requirements were changed, making the test more difficult. Because of the last minute change, seven women filed a discrimination suit charging the change caused them to fail the eligibility exam.
Part of the physical exam requires applicants to drag a 175- pound mannequin 100 feet. In the August letter, applicants were told they could drag the dummy by an arm or the collar of a jacket. The change required applicants to actually lift the dummy off the ground, making this portion of the exam much more difficult.
In response to the claim, St. Paul officials have decided to offer the test again. This decision is wise. The goal of the test is to determine whether applicants are qualified to serve as firefighters, but if the requirements are unclear, it is almost impossible to train for the test.
However, St. Paul should also consider whether the requirements of the test are actually realistic or whether they simply serve to eliminate women from competition. While a firefighter should certainly be able to carry a disabled person from danger, how the person is carried is not particularly important. If a woman carries an individual in a different manner than a man, but does it just as quickly and safely, the difference should not count against her. Those responsible for designing the test should ensure the requirements are not arbitrary.
In general, men tend to be able to develop upper-body strength more easily than women. On the other hand, women are able to develop their leg strength more quickly than men. St. Paul should consider whether their test puts more emphasis on upper-body strength simply because men have historically been those who have served as firefighters.
Currently women comprise only 4 percent of firefighters in St. Paul. While St. Paul fire chief Tim Fuller says that figure is consistent with the national average, that is not reason to be complacent. Most major cities use similar tests, and it is certainly possible that those tests might also use means that inadvertently discriminate against women.
Firefighters should be individuals who are exemplary both in mental and physical strength. A test with strict standards is the best way to weed out those who do not meet the requirements of the job. However, it is also necessary to ensure that the test itself is fair. St. Paul should carefully examine all parts of the city’s firefighting test to determine whether the standards are necessary means of eliminating unqualified individuals or whether the standards simply disqualify those who choose to employ different techniques.