The Even Playing Field

I almost never write about either of my two professions. I certainly never say exactly who I work for. My EMT work is only part-time and I’m studying to become a paramedic. All I’ll say about who I work for is that it is a large municipal fire department whose incident structure has been put into place by fire departments much older in other parts of the country. As an EMT who hopes to become a firefighter I know the process inside and out. It’s largely the same across the country.

I have, for a few years now, followed an ongoing issue in the Chicago Fire Department: a group of African-American firefighter candidates (in other words, those who applied to become firefighter trainees) sued the department, claiming discrimination on a mass scale. At issue was a test conducted in 1995. According to the suit, the written test, which is the first step in the process to becoming a firefighter, was too stringent – leaving minority candidates out of the running. According to the now six-year-old court ruling, the expectations of the 1995 test “favored white candidates” because the cutoff score was too high. In other words, the suit all but claimed that minorities aren’t as intelligent as white job seekers and deserved special consideration.

I don’t believe for a New York minute that any minority is less intelligent than a white person. Believe me – I spent time living in the Deep South and I’ve met plenty of white people whose lack of education was astounding. Because I have seen many black and Hispanic people educate themselves and succeed in ways that many white people never could, I refuse to believe that those qualification scores ever needed to be lowered for anybody. The color of your skin does not indicate your level of intelligence; your willingness to push hard, learn the material and make sure you can do it does. I have seen people of all colors pass the test despite being dyslexic.

In light of the outrageous argument that the cutoff was set too high, I fail to understand how any judge could rule that the test was discriminatory and six thousand firefighter hopefuls who happened to be black will get another shot after failing the first time without having to take the test again.

Those who know me know that I have struggled with weight for much of my life. It’s something I’m extremely self-conscious about. When I graduated high school I couldn’t even climb a flight of stairs without having to stop and take a breather. I beat myself into shape, became an EMT, worked in corrections, worked as a martial arts instructor, then when I lost a relationship on the heels of one injury only to be sidelined by another injury a year later I let myself waste again. In my present state, some people in the fire service find it humorous that I want to be a firefighter.

Those people don’t know what I used to do or what I am capable of. All they know is what they see. A person who is overweight isn’t usually expected to be able to dead-drag 200 pounds, climb stairs or help carry 80 pounds of gear, but I can do it. Because of the nature of being an EMT and what’s required of firefighters, though, I can’t blame them for questioning whether I’m able to help when I arrive on scene. I can’t be offended. Hell, I’ve done the same thing and I know from personal experience that some overweight people are remarkably adept at this job. I absolutely refuse to remain in this state and the firefighters I work with most often know this about me.

Part of their job is to look out for themselves and each other. They need to be able to trust that if they get hurt, I will be able to help them. They also need to know that they will be able to help me. Being a firefighter or medic is a very physically demanding job. I know that every firefighter I meet questions my ability to do what I’m there to do. If I wanted to be a jerk about it, I could get offended and file complaints left and right, but that would be completely wrong.

In fire service culture, if you cannot pass basic tests meant to prove that you meet the bare minimum requirements for the job, the guys don’t trust you. If you got your job based purely on the fact that you were a person of color or a certain gender and the passing threshold was lowered in a special circumstance for you, they’ll never trust you, and with good reason.

I never, NEVER complain about the fact that my abilities are questioned based on my appearance. I wouldn’t dream of filing a lawsuit to force my department to hire me. I would never make it if that were the only reason I got in, because I would have to work a hundred times harder than everyone else just to prove myself when I should have been able to do it during the initial testing phase. The tests, both written and physical, are base requirements for what I’ll have to be able to do in the academy. If I can’t pass the initial test, how can I expect to make it through the academy?

It irritates the hell out of me when decisions like this are handed down. If none of those men passed the test, they shouldn’t have an argument, nor should they receive any special treatment. Not only would I not dare ask for any special consideration, I would be offended if it were offered. And I would never dare ask anybody to trust me with a task that I know I’m not 100% capable of carrying out. I know I can dead-drag a full-grown man, breach a door, and carry nearly 100 pounds of gear. But could I sustain it for two hours? No. Until I can, I don’t deserve it.

So the City of Chicago will hire 111 black men to become firefighters despite their inability to meet the same requirements that a host of others did. They’ll also shell out tens of millions of dollars in back pension for each of those men along with millions more for those who really do lose out. It’s all because a test, whose questions had nothing to do with race, was too much for some. The men who will be hired from this issue will have to find out the hard way what it can do to a career in the fire service. For some, it will be a disappointment at best. It could shatter dreams for others.

Race should never be used to even the playing field, regardless of the color of your skin.

Note, 03/20/2012: I wanted to add something to this that I forgot in the original posting. I have tested several times. I have a high IQ, a damn good education, and I retain information incredibly well (I remember things I’d rather forget). The first time I took the test for my department, however, I failed. It was the first time in my life I had failed a test on a subject I loved. I depended too much on memory and didn’t study enough. I wasn’t the only one, either. Many of the best firefighters I know and respect failed the first time. I know guys who have failed the Captain’s exam a few times, but they don’t claim discrimination because the test was too hard.

Everyone who fails and still hopes to make it does the same thing: we study harder and go back and take it again. The very next year I passed the written exam with flying colors, yet I still didn’t get picked. They didn’t discriminate against me because I’m a woman, they simply picked the candidates who best fit their requirements at that time. Having worked as an EMT with these guys for several years now, working out with them and bouncing nutrition plans off of them, many have become unofficial mentors and hope that I succeed the next time our department does hold a test.


3 thoughts on “The Even Playing Field

  1. So, the judge in effect stated people of color are less intelligent than white people. I guess it is official eh?

    My class valedictoria is black. She was accepted at Harvard and graduated from Harvard. I must be the dumbest person around if a black person out hustled me in the classroom.

  2. It’s like saying everyone is entitled to have a job whether they are capable of doing it. I’m not overweight but not in the shape I was a year ago but even then I doubt I could pass the basic physical tests for a job like that. And even if I could I suspect my being an insulin dependent diabetic would be an issue. So these means I should get to take the test again too?
    Mel, good luck with losing the weight. It’s depressing how easy it is to gain and how impossible it seems it is to lose it (I know I can if I apply myself every day to P90 again, but mentally I just can’t start). I know you can do it because everything I’ve read since discovering this blog and you leads me to believe you’ll keep trying until you succeed.

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