Strength, stamina and speed are just some of the physical requirements for being a firefighter. As Urbandale Chief Jerry Holt puts it, “they go from zero sixty just like that and they have to be able to perform at a high level."
That's why there's widespread support for gender-neutral testing in the fire service. But the tests themselves can vary wildly from department to department.
In Urbandale, candidates have to complete five stations. Turning on a hydrant is first, followed by pulling a water-filled hose, ventilation simulation, carrying tools and dragging a dummy. The time limit is four minutes. A blind hose follow and a ladder climb are each timed separately.
In Des Moines there are eight stations. The test begins with three minutes on a painfully show moving stair climber, wearing 75 pounds. That weight drops to fifty pounds for the rest of the test and managing a hose is the next skill. It's followed by the equipment carry, raising and lowering a ladder, using a sledgehammer, crawling through a blackout tunnel, dragging a dummy and ventilation simulation.
The Des Moines time limit is ten minutes, twenty seconds.
Captain Joe Hogan finishes it with plenty of time to spare. “This is a test that we did not design organically," he explains, "it’s from outside and it’s been studied and it’s held up." The Candidate Physical Ability Test or "C-PAT" was put together by the International Association of Firefighters, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs and Chief John Tekippe calls it the "gold standard" for candidate testing but it's expensive - requiring a lot of training on the part of personnel and a lot of overtime when candidates are practicing and testing.
Estimating the cost per department is difficult, but it’s enough to price out most small town and volunteer departments. Of the 864 fire departments in Iowa fewer than 1.5% use the CPAT, which is well below the national average.
According to the National Report Card on Women in Firefighting, around 21 percent of departments use the CPAT. Roughly 24 percent have tests developed by testing professionals or state civil service commissions. More than half use “home grown” tests that are created internally.
Researches didn’t just examine what kind of tests departments use, they also wanted to find out how women did on them. They found that the average pass rate for women on the CPAT test is 68%. On all others, it’s 49%. Some speculate it’s because many of those “other” tests, place more emphasis on brute strength.
“There’s a level of athleticism and being an occupational athlete for the fire department," says Chief TeKippe. And it's true that you have to prove your athleticism in the beginning, but maintaining it is up to each individual firefighter.
“With the physical fitness side of things, it’s one and done," says Des Moines firefighter Jay Rhoten, "you just have to meet that on your very best day of your entire life and you can slide from there." Rhoten doesn’t want the slide to happen on his watch. As a “peer fitness trainer” he helps lead workouts for his crew at station seven. Every Des Moines firefighter is supposed to exercise thirty minutes a day. Some - like Rhoten - would like to see more rigorous requirements. "I feel there should be something in place," he says, "if there was a minimum standard to physically get on this job, you should have to re-up on that every certain period of time.”
That sounds ideal – but it takes us back to that earlier problem. "You just don't have the tax base," says former Fire Marshal Ray Reynolds. That means whether it's paying for the CPAT test or ongoing testing, most departments just don’t have room in the budget. Reynolds lays it out this way, “So your options are, you can either pay for gas for a fire truck or you can pay for physicals for firefighters to go to the fire.”
Setting those types of priorities is a painful reality, just like knowing that when they’re trying to save a life, they’re putting their own in the hands of their fellow firefighters.