Connecticut Democrats are working to lower the physical fitness requirements for female firefighters, saying that less onerous standards will make fire departments "more diverse."
A law introduced earlier this month in the Connecticut State Assembly would let women skip the Candidate Physical Ability Test, a timed gauntlet used by fire departments across the country. The test, which only 10 to 15 percent of women pass, requires candidates to complete intense physical tasks while wearing a 50 pound vest. It’s designed to simulate the experience of navigating a fire in heavy gear—and to weed out those unable to do so.
The law, introduced by five Democratic lawmakers, would offer women an alternative test based on "revised physical standards," with the goal of ensuring that "additional female candidates" qualify for firefighter positions, text from the bill states.
But some firefighters, including women, who have climbed the ranks of their departments without workarounds, say the bill will set merit-based hiring ablaze and potentially endanger Connecticut residents. "If you can’t handle a 50 pound vest, you’re not going to be able to rescue a child from a burning building," said Leah DiNapoli, a retired firefighter in New Haven, Conn.
"A citizen in need of rescue doesn’t care if a firefighter is white, black, Hispanic, male, or female," said Frank Ricci, a retired firefighter who served as the president of the New Haven firefighters union. "They care that they can do the job. This attempt to socially engineer public safety positions will only serve to endanger the public."
Unlike in the military, where uniforms and equipment vary by gender, all firefighters wear the same gear, which weighs at least 59 pounds—9 more than the vest used for the physical assessment. That’s not including the weight of ladders, hoses, or other firemen, who must sometimes carry incapacitated colleagues on their shoulders. While a few pieces of protective gear now come tailored for women, most of the essential tools do not.
"They don’t make lighter saws or ladders," DiNapoli said. "When I was there, they didn’t even make female-sized boots."
The law, she added, is "absolutely insane. Either you can do the job or you can’t."
The bill has been referred to the state legislature’s "committee on public safety," which has not yet scheduled hearings on the law. Neither the bill’s sponsors nor Connecticut governor Ned Lamont responded to requests for comment.
Beyond putting lives at risk, critics say the law will exacerbate the suspicion, common among male firefighters, that women simply aren’t up for the job. Fire departments have always been an "old boys club," DiNapoli said, and around 91 percent of firefighters are men. In this testosterone-fueled environment, sex-blind tests often serve as a stopgap against stereotypes, providing an objective assurance of physical competence.
"It’s already tough for women in the fire service, because you constantly have to prove your worth," a retired female firefighter from Chicago said. "How are you going to prove yourself if you don’t take the same test as the men?"
Danny Stratton, a recently retired fire captain from Camden, New Jersey, drew a parallel to affirmative action. "When you lower standards for minorities, people assume they got the job because of the color of their skin," Stratton said. "Lowering standards for women creates the same kind of stereotypes."
Such suspicions are especially dangerous in the fire service, where trust and teamwork can mean the difference between life and death. "The guys I’m working with need to know that I can get them out of a bad situation," DiNapoli said. "If a woman can’t pass the test, men won’t want her on their shift."
This is not the first culture war between firefighters and government officials in Connecticut, where fire stations have been ground zero for diversity-related feuds. In 2003, the New Haven fire department threw out the results of a written exam after none of the African Americans who took it scored high enough for a promotion. Ricci, the former union president, who would have been promoted based on his results, sued the department, arguing that he and other non-black firefighters had been denied professional opportunities because of their race. The Supreme Court agreed, ruling 5-4 that New Haven had violated anti-discrimination law.
Fire departments have nonetheless faced pressure to axe both written and physical tests—especially when women do poorly on them. In 2011, the Chicago Fire Department was hit with a class action lawsuit over its physical abilities test, which was even more difficult than the Candidate Physical Ability Test used in Connecticut and other states.
The complaint argued that Chicago’s test discriminated against women because so few of them could pass it. The department eventually settled, offering jobs to many of the women who were rejected under the old standard.
"A lot of men ridiculed those women," recalled the Chicago firefighter, who had passed the original test.
Though some fire service tests have been struck down on disparate impact grounds, the Candidate Physical Ability Test is not one of them. Developed and validated by the International Association of Firefighters, it has survived multiple discrimination lawsuits, mostly from women, and has received the blessing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that enforces civil rights laws in the workplace.
"The idea of the test was to keep politics out of fire service hiring," Stratton said. "Now they’re trying to add politics back in."