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Is the Chicago FF Test Keeping Women Out?

Chicago Tribune via Yellowbrix

July 20, 2011

CHICAGO — As Chicago prepares to pay $30 million to African-American men who were denied firefighting jobs because of a discriminatory entrance exam, the city was hit Tuesday with another lawsuit, this one on behalf of women who were disqualified because they failed the physical abilities test.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court claims that the test, which includes arm exercises, carrying a 2½-inch hose and stair-climbing tasks designed to determine strength and endurance, has an adverse impact on female applicants and is not related to the skills needed to be a firefighter.

“The general feeling is that women … are too weak to be firefighters,” said Marni Willenson, the lead attorney in the suit. “These tests are a tool for keeping women out.”

Chicago, like many major cities, has had a history of problems with its firefighters exam. While fire departments acknowledge that the test has been a barrier for many women, they insist that it is necessary to ensure that all firefighters can handle the rigors of the job.

Nationally, fewer than 11,000 women are career firefighters, making up 3.6 percent of all firefighters, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. In Chicago, there are 116 women firefighters, representing just over 2 percent of the department of more than 5,000. In the suburbs, where most departments did not start hiring women until the 1990s, there are even fewer career female firefighters.

The suit filed Tuesday by Samantha Vasich seeks class-action status for women who passed the written exam but were denied jobs because they failed the physical test. Attorneys estimated that more than 100 women could be affected.

Vasich, 27, said she passed the written exam in 2006 and was called to take the physical test in 2010. To prepare for it, she said, she spent more than a month with a personal trainer who used city fire department training materials to develop a plan for her.

“When I was taking the test, I wasn’t cocky, but I was confident that it went very well,” said Vasich, who works as a preschool teacher in Chicago. “It was a lot easier than I ever imagined. So when I got my (denial) letter, I was really confused.”

The city’s law department declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit but said it was reviewing the exam and the issues raised.

“The Chicago Fire Department is committed to attracting a diverse pool of applicants and providing equal opportunity for all applicants during the exam process,” the law department said in a statement.

Vasich’s lawsuit is the second to be filed by women over Chicago Fire Department exams. Still pending is a federal lawsuit filed against the city in 2008 by five women who were denied paramedics jobs because they failed a physical ability test.

In May, a federal appeals court ruled that Chicago must hire 111 African-American firefighters and pay about $30 million in damages to applicants who were denied jobs because of a faulty exam given in 1995.

The ruling by the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals ended a 13-year legal battle over the exam, which kept more than 6,000 qualified applicants from getting jobs between 1995 and 2002.

Chicago hired its first female firefighter in 1980 and six years later, at the urging of the U.S. Justice Department, the city hired a group of 20 more. A new test was developed in 1985 that eased some of the physical tasks and placed more emphasis on the written exam.

Willenson said the physical test is unnecessary because the tasks included are covered in the fire academy.

“Nobody’s born knowing how to carry equipment, these things are trained,” the attorney said. “The city needs to justify why someone who has not gone through training at the academy needs to demonstrate that they know how to carry a hose.”