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Sex, lies and fire escapes
By Jack Cashill
My best friend is a fire chief.
For the last 25 years, he has fought uncountable fires in the arson-scarred ghettos of one of the ten most dangerous fire cities in the world, a city whose name will go unmentioned for reasons that soon will be clear.
About ten years ago, in an odd twist of fate, I had an extended consulting gig on the same inner-city block where my friend worked as a captain. More than a few lunch hours I spent at his fire house that year, mostly just shooting hoops with his crew or shooting the breeze. These were an indomitable bunch, a mean street, last of the Mohicans--tough, profane, spirited, loyal, and often wickedly funny to boot, sustained in this smoldering trash heap of a city only by their camaraderie and their pride in the job.
Apparently, many among them had always wanted to be fireman. They had worked hard to get in the department and were working even harder--weights, aerobics, books--to get ahead. But, alas, not many have. As my friend relates, “A majority of the guys hate what’s going on. They’re retiring.”
WHAT IS GOING ON? My interest in things smoldering was piqued by an article in The Kansas City Star. Apparently, two women firefighters have alleged "bias and harrassment" within the Kansas City Fire Department. As compensation, they want just about everything including the bathroom sink--literally--plus separate lockers and showers, better-fitting uniforms, "sensitivity training" for their loutish male counterparts, promotions (although both have been promoted twice during their careers), $75,000 in cash apiece, and $185 an hour for their attorney which is, of course, more than a K.C. firefighter makes in a day. But hey! Who's counting?
Arguably, this money could be better spent on incidentals like, say, new fire trucks or protective gear. But the demands cited above are, if nothing else, tangible. A jury can award these plums to the women, probably will. But even the most Oprah-addled jurors will have a tough time meeting one of their demands, an elusive one, namely that women "get credit for the same firefighting abilities as . . . their male counterparts."
"Do women have the same firefighting ability as men?" A basic question, you would think, the first question, the one from which all other questions should follow. And of a different gravity than, say, "Should girls play in the little league?" After all, even the worst error at third base is unlikely to kill a fan or a teammate.
But as I started to research this question, I ran smack into a paradox of Orwellian splendor: the question can't be answered because the question can't be asked. "This is a very sensitive area," one wary city official told me. "We are very reluctant to talk about tests in relation to female candidates." I scheduled an interview with her office over her objections and made my next call.
"I'd like to help you, Jack," said a simpatico city fire official, "but I'm not in a position to say anything. I think you understand."
I was beginning to. Like 1984's Winston Smith, I had entered the world of doublethink, all “euphemism, question begging, and sheer, cloudy vagueness," where to survive, one must defend the indefensible and do it with a straight face. “Go public on this issue,” says my friend, the chief, “and you can expect serious ramifications.” Clearly, none of them good.
My friend knows something about the politics of fighting fires. Quite possibly, he has fought as many as serious fires as anyone in the world and, speaking privately, has no reason to dissemble. He believes that if it were only a question of courage or intelligence, women could do well as firefighters. Then again, he acknowledges, if these were the only relevant attributes, a woman could do well in the NFL. But in each case, another attribute imposes itself, that old bugaboo, "upper body strength." And in the NFL at least, where merit still rules, women have never played and quite possibly never will.
My friend argues for two essential firefighting abilities: hauling a hose while kneeling and pulling a person out of a burning building, both strength-specific. And since he himself might one day be the pullee, he values strength in others, sheer and brute, the more the better. “Women,” he acknowledges, “can never do it.” Not to his satisfaction anyhow, not with his butt on the line, not at least if their duties are to be "the same."
His kind of first hand opinion, however, is drowned out by the strangely off-key warblings of officialdom. When on record-- almost to a person--judges, journalists, city officials, and ambitious fire spokesmen sing another tune. A Chicago area judge, for instance, blithely forced suburban fire departments to change their testing “to prevent discrimination against females.” The new tests, a Chicago Tribune journalist notes approvingly, “focus on general conditioning rather than brute strength,” implying that “brute strength” were superfluous, atavistic even, just another form of bias as outdated as a Georgia poll tax.
According to The Tribune, only “a relatively small proportion” of the work involves fighting fires (True, and only a small proportion of a pilot's work involves landing). And even this work requires more than “sheer strength.” The reporter goes on to chronicle the perky adventures of a 100 pound firefighter--”I’m dinky,” she admits--who “adds in drive” what she “lacks in size.” Sigh! One wonders if our reporter would be quite so enthusiastic if she saw Ms. Dinky coming up her ladder. But hey, the champeens of gender-free firefighting rarely live in wood-frame walk-ups or fire plagued neighborhoods. Who's worrying?
The Chicago case is more the rule than the exception. In St. Paul, Minnesota, a judge found the traditional fire test there to be “discriminatory” and threw it out. The city then hired a research consultant to develop “a non-sexist firefighter hiring test,” which, in official doublethink, means a test that quietly jiggles gender variables until a predetermined percentage of women can pass.
While that test was being developed, at who knows what cost in new boots and head gear, St. Paul adapted Phoenix’s test, a gender-conscious test developed for principally an emergency force in a newish, one story town. Not exactly St. Paul on any count. The Star Tribune uncritically, even cheerfully, cites the progress of the Phoenix adaptation: “The new test has a passing time of 7 minutes and 20 seconds, more than three times the 2:16 allowed in the old test," writes the reporter. "Moreover, the new test will be ranked on a pass-fail basis, while the old one ranked the fastest candidates the highest for hiring.” Again, this test negates the value of those old inherently biased stand-bys,"speed and brute strength.” And though it may not save many lives, it should do wonders for the candidates' self-esteem.
This kind of judicial gender rigging is taking place all over America. A Pittsburgh, PA judge mandated that at least one out of three new hires on that city's department be female, and tests have been adjusted accordingly. For the National Fire Service, an incredible two out of three new recruits must be women until the service levels off at 43% female. Promotions are similarly rigged, a manipulation that has seriously demoralized the veteran firefighters. Court intervention gets wierder still. In Portland, Oregon a jury awarded $43,000 under the state's handicapped statutes to a woman who was dropped from that city's fire training program for lack of strength and endurance.
New York City was charged a few years back with hiring more female firefighters. Of the 98 in training at the academy--as my friend was told by an NYC Deputy Chief--only two completed all the requisite, job-specific, skill tests (carrying a person, pulling hose etc.) and those two just barely. Needless to say, officialdom was not pleased with the results.
"Can all the men on the Department still pass these tests?" asked a prominent city official.
"No," answered the Deputy Chief honestly.
"What do you do with the ones who can't?"
"We hide them."
"Well," said the no-nonsense official, "hide these too."
So it goes. In city after city, common sense is being sliced and diced on the altar of social engineering (and gender is just one of the variables engineered.) Oral tests--notoriously subjective--have replaced writtens. Pass-fails have replaced rankings. And merit has gone up in smoke.
As to Kansas City, I am still not sure. The Office of Recruitment and Selections cancelled my interview. They refused even to be interviewed over the phone. "I am really reluctant to talk about testing when we're right in the middle of recruitment," said a manager, well versed in Newspeak. "Can't you do your article without us?"
Not to be shut out entirely, I called Phoenix, something of a Mecca of new age firefighting and, I'm told, an inspiration for Kansas City's department.
"We don't look at candidates technically," the Phoenix training director told me over the phone. "We look at them from how well they'll fit in. Are they caregivers?" I wasn't reassured.
My friend, the Chief, has another take on this phenomenon. "Hiring and promotion is like a lottery now," he sighs. "Put your name in the hat and hope for the best."
The next time I have to call 911, I will hope for the best too.
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