Thirty years ago, the Minneapolis Fire Department consisted entirely of white men. Today, its workforce includes 58% white men, 26% men of color, and 16% women: 74 women out of 474 total personnel. A recruit class graduating later this year will increase diversity still further and add eight more women to the total. With the highest percentage of women in suppression roles of any sizable fire department anywhere, no one in the MFD’s leadership yet sees any reason why the numbers shouldn’t continue to increase.
“There’s no set number, nationally, for how many women should be on a fire department,” says Fire Chief Rocco Forte.(1) While most departments are nowhere near 15% female, to Forte numbers of that size sound “ridiculously low.” He points out, “That’s saying that for every 100 men who are qualified to be firefighters, there are only fifteen women. I can’t believe that. I believe there are good women and people of color in our community; it’s our responsibility to go out and attract them, and then bring them into a system where there’s mentoring and support.”
Diversity is reflected throughout the MFD’s ranks: 18% of its engineers are women, and 24% are men of color; 14% of captains are women, and 22% are men of color. Nearly a quarter of the women on the job are women of color, including Black, Latina, Asian-American, and Native American women.
How did this come about? What circumstances, and whose hard work, combined to make it possible? And what can other fire departments learn from Minneapolis’ experience to help them diversify their own workforce? What it took in the MFD’s case was external pressure for change, a fire chief who was willing to learn and then work for the principle of diversity, and a group of women firefighters who committed their own time and effort to the cause.
The external pressure began in 1970, with a lawsuit, Carter v. Gallagher, filed against the department on behalf of minority-male applicants who believed the department’s hiring practices were discriminatory. While it would not see final settlement for three decades, the lawsuit and resulting federal court order in the meantime served as a catalyst for change.
The federal court hearing the case appointed a Firefighters’ Advisory Steering Committee to monitor the department’s progress in hiring African-American, Latino, and Native American men (the groups included in the lawsuit and thus in the court order). In the mid-1980’s, the committee broadened its scope to include other ethnic minorities and women. The department began recruiting women, and while their efforts by many accounts were half-hearted, the four hiring processes conducted between 1986 and 1995 brought forty women firefighters onto the job.
The physical abilities test given as part of the process was different every time. Many of the women now on the department are convinced the changes were made in order to keep women out. One woman said, “In our recruit class, instead of actually training, we spent most of our time going through various types of tests. The things the women didn’t have trouble with, they’d drop; the things that were harder for women, they’d keep.” The women responded by networking with new job applicants, passing on tips and techniques to help them prepare for the test.
Like that of many fire departments, the MFD’s physical abilities test has evolved over time. Until the late 1970’s, it consisted of sit-ups, push-ups, and similar exercises. Awakening to the possibility of female firefighter applicants, the department revised its test, making it much more strenuous. For the next fifteen years or so, the test was a rank-ordered, speed-to-completion series of seven events.(2)
Originally, four of the seven events were graded pass-fail, which meant a candidate’s ranking was actually based on how fast they could perform the remaining three: dragging a dummy, running up four flights of stairs with a hose bundle, and assembling a hose line and hooking it to a hydrant. Because the written test and oral interview were also pass-fail, speed on these three elements of the physical test determined one’s chances of being hired. Ultimately, on one test, the stair run was the only timed event. As long as you passed the rest of the test, your hopes of becoming a firefighter rested on whether you could do the stair run faster than enough of the other candidates.
As is usual with this type of scoring system, women were able to pass the test but usually did not achieve fast enough times to be competitive. All of the women firefighters who were hired during this period benefited from “selective certification,” which allowed the department to reach down the list in order to hire candidates who would improve workforce diversity. “There was an outcry over reachdown,” the current fire chief concedes. “But the reality is, the department didn’t do what it should have done during the 25 years we were under the court order. We did the bare minimum.”
In 1995, the MFD adopted a combat-style test. The last event on the test required candidates to lift a 185-pound dummy onto a simulated windowsill 36 inches high. This proved a significant stumbling block for women: while 80 women had attended departmental training sessions for the test, just twelve showed up on test day, most of the others aware they would not be able to pass. Only five of the twelve passed, and just two were hired.
Two of the MFD women, Bonnie Bleskachek and Jen Cornell, became concerned over the impact of the new test, and took action. They formed the Minnesota Women Fire Fighters Association, and began training potential job candidates for the test. Cornell and Bleskachek also compiled data on how the female candidates had done on the dummy event compared to their performance on the rest of the test. Armed with these numbers, and with an expert from the state’s Fire/EMS Center who testified that lifting the dummy onto the windowsill (as opposed to simply dragging it) was unnecessary to the purpose of the test, they addressed a 1997 meeting of the city’s Civil Service Commission. “The commission didn’t really listen,” Cornell said. “But the assistant chief in charge of the training and cadet programs, Rocco Forte, did. He had pretty free reign over things, and he agreed to remove that part of the test.”
The changes in the test meant it then had to be normed again by administering it to current MFD personnel.(3) At the same time, the test’s developer was asked why the test had to be scored on a speed-to-completion basis. The outcome was a change to a banded scoring system, beginning in 1998.
All of these changes meant a long delay before the next test could be given. “The women who were training with us for the test trained literally for years,” one MWFFA woman noted. But once the test was finally given, 24 women were hired off the resulting list, 23 of them MWFFA trainees. Twelve more have been hired so far off the list from the next test: a total of 36 new women on the department in the past two and a half years.
The MWFFA has been actively involved in recruiting women for firefighter positions and training them for the physical abilities test since 1995. Beyond placing recruitment posters in strategic locations and spreading the word in other ways, the firefighters take a personal interest in each woman who contacts them. “We invite them to a test practice session, and talk with them in detail about how to prepare.” Phone calls and direct personal contact keep the women involved in the program and optimistic about their progress.
The test practice sessions and associated training are the main focus of the MWFFA’s program and the reason for its success. When a hiring process is announced, the group holds practice sessions two or three times a month at the department’s training facility, using the actual test equipment. (MFD policy allows any “fire service affiliated association” to use its facility for tutoring purposes, as long as an MFD engineer or officer takes on the role of responsible party and all participants sign liability waivers.)
“When the women go through the test for the first time, they’re often discouraged. Sometimes they can’t even complete the whole course. We do a lot of phone calls, encouraging them to come back. We guarantee they’ll not only finish it, they’ll shave three minutes off their time. We’ve had enough experience to be able to see what they’re capable of doing, with training.”
The practice sessions provide many benefits. They give women a chance to get used to activities they may never have done before, like pulling the cord on a chain saw or swinging a sledge hammer. The women can learn appropriate techniques and practice the skills until they’re comfortable. They get feedback from experienced women firefighters and officers on areas that need work and the kinds of training that might help.
Familiarization with the test builds not only skills but confidence. “It takes the fear factor away,” one woman said. The sessions also provide a support network for the candidates. “We try to pair a woman who’s been in the program for several months up with one who’s starting out at about the same place the first woman started out. This gives her a role model, someone she can relate to. We pair shorter women together, because they know the techniques you need to use if you’re short.”
Once the women reach recruit school, they already have friends there from the training sessions. Not only do MWFFA-trained women excel on the physical abilities test, but they also do well in the fire academy. While an average of five recruits (out of a class of 35-40) don’t make it through the six months of academic and drill-tower training, only one woman since 1998 has failed to complete recruit school.
Women who attend test practice sessions(4) are also encouraged to work with personal trainers to help improve their strength and fitness. The MWFFA had a trainer from the YWCA go through the test and design a training program around it (see sidebar); every woman who has trained with him has improved her test time considerably. Sessions with the trainer are available at a reduced rate to firefighter candidates.
As the test date approaches, the practice sessions and workouts increase. The MWFFA’s goal is for all its trainees to place well into the top band. “Six minutes and eleven seconds will get you into the high band, but we aim for better than that. You can’t count on things going perfectly. We want everything to be able to wrong on test day – the ladder halyard slips, or you have trouble with your gloves – and you’ll still be in that top category.”
The MWFFA’s program has been so successful that much of it has now been adopted by the fire department. The training program has been put on videotape, along with the test itself, and copies of the tape are available to job candidates. The physical abilities test is given twelve weeks after the written test, to allow candidates to attend test practice sessions and train for the test. On-duty personnel and those volunteering for overtime staff the training session during those twelve weeks, and candidates may run through the test as often as they like, until they achieve a time that would put them in the “high” band. (The MFD has also incorporated elements of other groups’ training programs, and now provides tutoring for the written test and an orientation to the personality assessment device.)
The recruitment, tutoring, training and mentoring programs the MFD has adopted have been an undoubted success. Morale is high: last year, the department received an award from a local labor/management council that cited the improvement in what had been “adversarial labor-management relations and transitional pains as the department grew more diverse.” While complaints of “lowered standards” persist, Chief Forte discounts them. “That perception is slowly melting away. People complain that the standards have been lowered, and then they have to go out and take the test that sets the standard, and they complain about how hard the test is.
“There’s no reason to lower your standards for diversity. We’ve actually raised ours. There was no physical fitness tie to job functions before. People could do sit-ups, but could they perform a rescue? People had bad reading skills. Now we send them to college. We created or raised standards in all areas: skills, knowledge, and abilities.”
Despite their record of success, both the fire chief and the women firefighters are often confronted with reasons why other fire departments can’t be as successful. The MWFFA, along with Chief Forte, presented a workshop about the program at the 2001 WFS conference in Georgia. “Women came up to us afterwards with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘We could never do it in our department, because we don’t have a chief like that.’ But we didn’t get a chief ‘like that’. We created him!” They encourage women in other departments to put a program in place, demonstrate its success, and then find a young chief on the way up who will listen. “Make the chief what you need him or her to be.”
And indeed, Rocco Forte was not universally hailed as a leader who would bring diversity to the department, when he was appointed fire chief in 1998. Many were suspicious of his close ties to the previous chief, whose attitude towards minority hiring was lukewarm at best. The head of the American Indian Firefighters’ Association was critical of the new chief’s record as assistant chief and of his selections to his command staff, and at least one city commissioner publicly worried over the “baggage” Forte brought in with him.
Forte is the first to admit that he had to get “a lot of education” in workforce diversity. “My predecessor was less than enthusiastic about diversity, so he handed it off to me as assistant chief.” The shortcomings of the old ways of testing, Forte says, forced management to start identifying the barriers encountered by women and people of color. “It’s hard for white men to do this if they’ve always been through systems where it’s easy for them to succeed. If I never hit the barrier, I never know it’s there. But once you want to look for the barriers, you’ll find them.”
Some fire chiefs have told Forte, “We can’t do that here because of the money.” And the MFD has certainly made a significant financial investment in its recruitment, tutoring, and mentoring programs. Yet Forte points out: “The money we’ve spent is almost a joke compared to what we’ve saved in lawsuits – and we’re getting a better, more qualified department into the bargain. I can’t imagine any fire chief going to the city council and being turned down when they ask for money to diversify their department. It’s more likely the council is asking them why they’re not making the changes.”
Other chiefs say their unions would never tolerate this type of program. Forte acknowledges that it’s important to do the groundwork in this area: let the union see there’s some value in it for them. “I have to give my union credit for their support. We demonstrated to them that we weren’t going to lower standards; we were going to raise them. And we provide a 1% pay benefit to everyone who goes through the physical and meets the standard.
“The bottom line was, we were going from lawsuit to lawsuit. We needed a long-term solution. At the end of the day, the union doesn’t get a say-so on this, though they can make it difficult, both in implementing the program and for the women who are hired. You have to have the will to implement the program and go out and sell it. You have to be tenacious, identify the obstacles, and work to remove them.”
While court supervision of its hiring practices provided external pressure for the agency to change the way it does business, the strategies the MWFFA and MFD have used to diversify the department’s workforce can be applied anywhere. What the MFD did that was unusual – and allowed it to make such rapid progress in this area – was a change in the state pension law that created an abnormally large number of retirees in the past three years.
Chief Forte explained: “This was a window of opportunity. We knew we would have a lot of retirements. If I didn’t recruit and hire correctly, I was going to set up a poor model that would last 25 years. We have hired 220 people in the last two and a half years. If I’d filled those vacancies under the old system, we’d have two percent women and ten percent minorities. Instead, 55 to 60% of our hirees and promotees in that period have been women and minorities.”
The pace of workforce diversification will certainly slow on the Minneapolis Fire Department, now that the vacancies created by the pension law change have been filled. The department will go back to hiring perhaps fifteen to twenty firefighters a year. In addition, recent removal of the city’s residency requirement for firefighter applicants is expected to create an influx of white male applicants from suburban fire departments, skewing the pool of candidates. And elections to be held in January could result in a new mayor for Minneapolis, which in turn could mean a new fire chief.
At the same time, the women who have lead the way with the Minnesota Women Fire Fighters Association are beginning to move into less active roles, turning over leadership to the next generation. The MWFFA continues its role of networking and supporting female firefighter candidates across the state, and has also begun offering women-only educational programs for current firefighters. “The new women being hired now may have no clue our organization even exists. They don’t know what a huge hand the MWFFA had in getting the process to where it is now.”
But while the rate of diversification may slow down, and the leadership of the women’s network may be taken over by younger hands, the gains that have been made are irreversible. With nearly half of the department having been hired in the last three years, the culture of the fire service in Minneapolis has changed. The work of the MWFFA and the MFD speak for themselves, and stand as a model and an inspiration for fire service agencies everywhere.
Many thanks to Chief Rocco Forte, District Chief Bonnie Bleskachek, Captain Jennifer Cornell, Firefighter Casidy Jones, and the many other members of the Minneapolis Fire Department and the Minnesota Women Fire Fighters Association who granted the interviews and provided the written materials that made this article possible.
1. A recent Federal appeals court decision upholding the Miami-Dade County Fire Department’s affirmative action plan suggested that while a 36% hiring goal might be “too high,” numbers in the 16-22% range might be reasonable.
2. Under rank-ordered, speed-to-completion scoring, candidates are timed competitively on the events of a test. Those with the fastest times score highest, usually regardless of other factors such as technique, physical condition at the end of the test, relative importance of speed on one task on the fireground as compared to others, or actual relevance of speed to any of the tasks under real fireground conditions.
3. This was also the first time firefighters over 35 were included in the norming group, following a change of hiring policy that meant the department would for the first time be hiring new firefighters who were over 35. All MFD personnel now take the physical abilities test every two years: firefighters one year, officers the next. The norming time for the test is based on the firefighters’ performance.
4. Men who join the MWFFA are also permitted to take part in their practice sessions. Other organizations such as the firefighters’ union and the NAACP have also offered such sessions.
This article originally appeared in the August 2001 issue of FireWork. It is copyright © 2001 Women in the Fire Service, Inc., and may not be reprinted without permission.
2005 note: Readers of this article may be interested to know that Bonnie Bleskachek became chief of the Minneapolis Fire Department in January of 2005. (View news article.)
The Minneapolis Fire Department’s Testing Process
•Written test (pass/fail)
•Employment Inventory/Customer Service Inventory (banded scoring): a biodata assessment normed against workers in public service industries,* it selects for criteria such as conscientiousness, teamwork, dependability, interpersonal dynamics, and willingness to take orders. The EI/CSI is administered at the same time as the written test.
•Fire Fighter Work Simulation Exam (given twelve weeks after the written test and EI/CSI, during which time candidates may practice the test at the MFD training facility.) The test consists of the following events:
1. Extend and retract ground ladder (fly section weighing 40 pounds)
2. Carry 55-pound hose bundle up four flights of stairs
3. Pull starter cord on a roof saw nine times
4. (Ventilation simulation machine) Strike pad on machine with a six-pound sledge hammer until pre-set goal is achieved (average 35 blows with hammer)
5. Carry hose bundle down four flights of stairs
6. Advance charged hose line 40 feet
7. Drag 185-pound rescue dummy 75 feet
The test is performed in turnout coat, helmet, gloves, and SCBA (no facepiece). Times of 6 minutes, 11 seconds place the candidate in the “high” or 100% band. Times between 6:12 and 7:13 fall into the 90% band; times from 7:14 to 8:34 are in the 80% band. Slower times are considered failing.
•Oral interview with fire department staff
*Many fire departments administer biodata assessments normed on their own incumbent workforce. MFD attorney Burt Osborne pointed out the fallacy in this approach: “Its a huge leap of faith to assume that your current population has all the attributes you want.”
Training Program for the MFD’s Fire Fighter Work Simulation Exam
This training program was designed by exercise specialists to prepare candidates for the Fire Fighter Work Simulation Exam (FFWSE) given by the Minneapolis Fire Department. They recommend it be performed once a week in addition to regular strength training and aerobic conditioning. This routine is specific to the events of the FFWSE, and is included here only as an example. It is not an overall fitness routine for firefighters and should not be used as such.
1. Run one lap on indoor track; then run up and down one flight of stairs carrying a 50-pound dumbbell on one shoulder. Repeat for a total of six sets.
2. Run twelve minutes on a treadmill set to alternating fast and slow intervals.
3. Twenty lat pull-downs and twenty front raises (three sets each)
4. Rope drag: place rope over shoulder with partner pulling from behind to provide resistance; walk forward 50 feet. Return by holding rope in front (partner facing, providing resistance) and walking backwards. Follow with stair run with 50-pound weight, as above. Repeat for a total of three sets.
5. UBE machine (rowing motion with arms) for one minute, followed by medicine-ball exercise: sit on bench facing partner; partner throws medicine ball; catch at chest or head level, lean back, raise ball above head, and throw back to partner, 20 times. Repeat for a total of three sets.
6. Power cleans, five reps, three sets.
7. Deadlifts: five reps, three sets.
The training program is designed to be performed without rest breaks in between the exercises.
NETWORKING THE WOMEN OF TODAY'S FIREFIGHTING WORLD, AND PROVIDING RESOURCES TO HELP BUILD THE FIRE SERVICE OF THE FUTURE