CHICAGO -- RaShaunda Dooley was sure that she could pass the Chicago firefighters physical abilities test.
A personal trainer helped her get in shape. And her mother, uncle and cousin, all Chicago firefighters, saw to it that she knew how to drag a hose across the floor and climb a flight of stairs carrying 20-pound gear.
But when Dooley took the test last year, she failed. So did dozens of other athletic women, including marathon runners, triathletes, lifeguards and spin class instructors.
"When I finished the test, I thought I had passed," said Dooley, 27, who put her firefighting aspirations on hold and is now a communications major at Roosevelt University. "My cousin was pinned by my uncle and I was looking forward to being pinned by my mom and keeping up the family tradition."
For many women, physical abilities tests have been the major barrier keeping them from becoming firefighters. While firefighter exams have long been controversial in departments across the country, Chicago has become latest target in a legal battle over whether the test discriminates against women.
Chicago hired a private company to develop and administer its Physical Abilities Test (PAT), which differs from the widely used Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), created by the International Association of Fire Fighters union.
Critics claim that Chicago's test has no uniform standards, that it is administered inconsistently and requires tasks that are not needed to be a firefighter. Supporters of the CPAT, used by more than 50 suburban Chicago departments, say it would be a better alternative because the steps are laid out in detail and all of the duties are directly related to those a firefighter must carry out while on the job.
A federal lawsuit challenging Chicago test was filed against the city last month, alleging that it is unfair to women, who fail the test at a disproportionate rate than men. The suit, which seeks class action status, claims that the test places too much emphasis on strength, rather than firefighting skills, and there are more equitable tests available, but the city has refused to adopt them. A similar lawsuit filed in 2008 by women who were denied paramedics jobs after failing a physical abilities test also is pending.
"It's not fair that you are completely in the dark about how much weight you're supposed to lift and what your score is supposed to be," said Marni Willenson, the attorney who filed the firefighters' lawsuit. "If this is supposed to be a fair test of the ability to be a firefighter, you should be able to explain to candidates what is needed so they can train for it."
Chicago fire officials said the physical abilities test has been an effective way of ensuring that both male and female applicants have the strength to perform the job. But, officials said, the city is willing to look at alternatives.
"The fire department is committed to improving diversity and we don't have a problem with reviewing the test and looking at tests that other cities use," said spokesman Larry Langford. "We're not saying this test has to stand forever. We will look at it."
Chicago has only 116 female firefighters, representing about 2 percent of the 5,000-member workforce. The last time the physical abilities test was given in 2006, 44 women passed and 183 failed, compared with 1,404 men who passed and 108 who failed, officials said. In 1995, 64 females passed and 281 failed, compared with 3,300 men who passed and 283 who failed.
Because the exam is administered infrequently, the city currently hires from an eligibility list comprising those who passed the written exam in 2006. Officials said 2,305 women who took the written exam passed and landed on the list, along with 14,653 men. As jobs open up, they are then invited to take the physical abilities test.
The four-part physical abilities test used by Chicago requires applicants to step on and off a platform carrying 18-pound weights, perform arm lifts, drag a 2 1/2-inch hose 70 feet and take an arm endurance test using a hand cycle.
With the eight-part CPAT, applicants simulate climbing stairs while being weighed down. They run with a hose before dragging 50 feet of it over a finish line. They carry saws, raise and extend ladders, practice getting into a building by force and searching for victims in cramped, dark spaces. All of the events are timed and performed in a specific order.
"If you hold a legitimate test, you can say what the requirements are up front and people can prepare for it," said Brenda Farlow, president of Fires Service Women of Illinois and a fire medic in Northlake, which uses the CPAT. "If not, it seems like you're trying to hire a certain type of person and you're building the requirements around that person."
The CPAT is used by nearly 1,000 fire departments across the country, including New York City, Dallas, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Los Angeles County, Miami and Washington, D.C. The test follows guidelines of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to Rich Duffy, a union official who helped design the test, which has been available since 1999.
"There were discrimination lawsuits on testing across the country and we wanted to make sure there was a valid physical test to assure all fire departments would have people physically trained to be firefighters without being mired in litigation issues," said Duffy. "We weren't blind to the problems. We wanted to make sure the test was fair and equitable."
No department that uses the CPAT has been sued over the fairness issue, according to Duffy. However, a complaint filed to the EEOC by a woman against the Austin, Texas, department led to a conciliation agreement in 2005 mandating that applicants be allowed two practice sessions prior to taking the test, Duffy said.
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