TRIAL BY FIRE: Firefighting Test Debate
When the worst happens, they go to work. It’s dangerous and difficult.
“It`s hard work – very physically demanding,” says Captain Linda Frangenberg. She’s one of 14 women on the Des Moines Fire Department.
“I was the fourth female to be hired.”
The test she took in 1989 was different from the one used today, but it was the same one the men took and she says she’s glad.
“Because the tasks we`re assigned are the same tasks. You know, the community is counting on you. Citizens expect us to be fit and able to take care of them.”
Karla Hogrefe agrees. ”When you`re doing the actual job it`s not going to be different if you`re a woman or man.”
Only three women have passed the Urbandale Fire Department’s test. Hogrefe is one of them.
“Yeah, I just pushed through the end and fell over the line.”
But the first time Hogrefe took this test, she failed.
When asked if it was physical strength, desire or mental toughness that made the difference she says it’s a combination of all three.”
“I`m in better shape right now. I want a career. I`m determined. So I think it`s all there right now.”
That combination is paying off. Hogrefe now works for three metro fire departments.
“People come to the test with different abilities and a great deal of their success is their desire,” says Frangenberg.
Mary Davis, the first woman hired by the Des Moines Fire Department paved the way for women like Frangenberg and Hogrefe.
“God blessed me with a strong body,” says Davis. She also has strong opinions about men and women taking the same physical agility test. “Because they don’t do a different job.”
People have been debating the standards and whether they should be based on gender for decades
“Not everybody’s cut out or made to go in and fight fires,” says former State Fire Marshall, Ray Reynolds. In an interview in September, Reynolds said he’s a proponent of two different tests.
“I spent 22 years in the military and there is a different standard in physical fitness in the military… a difference between female and male.”
The different standards may be the reason women make up 14-percent of active duty military and account for just 4-percent of fire departments nationwide. And the military isn’t alone. Most law enforcement agencies use the “Cooper Test.” It has different standards not only for gender, but also for age.
“I say firefighting is a team sport,” says Reynolds. That’s another reason for his opinion. A firefighter never responds to a fire alone.
“You`re not going to have one female firefighter or one male firefighter trying to rescue that person. You`re going to have the entire department trying to pull that person out.”
But when Reynolds stated his opinion publicly, he heard from female firefighters all over the country – all of them voicing support for equal testing.
His own daughter, Kaylin Reynolds took the same test as her male counterparts and now works for the Indianola Fire Department.
“Do I worry? I absolutely worry because it’s a dangerous job,” says Reynolds. “Did I want my daughter on the department – no, not at all. There’s this, if she’s not on the fire department she’s safe sort of mentality.”
Because they go to work when the worst happens, and when they’re in their gear gender disappears.
“But the other side of this is that I`ve been a firefighter for 26 years and if it was good enough for me, why wouldn`t it be good enough for my daughter?”
The official statement from the Fire Marshal’s office is that it does not dictate the standards for testing or hiring candidates.