Rigorous new standardized tests are changing the way firefighters get hired in much of the country.

Designed in part to eliminate sex and racial bias in hiring, the tests are also aimed at eliminating firefighter candidates who are not capable of performing the work. The testing sites are approved by the International Association of Firefighters and International Association of Fire Chiefs.

OPINION

A group of 20 south suburban fire departments are planning to open one such testing site in Homewood — only the fourth in Illinois — by the end of the month.

The Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) consists of eight events that must be completed in 10 minutes 20 seconds. Individuals hoping to become firefighters pay $125 out of their own pocket to take the test, which doesn’t guarantee them a job in the future. If they pass (the tests are pass-fail), they are merely issued a piece of paper that certifies they are physically capable of doing the job.

Firefighter candidates taking a physical ability test must use a 10-pound sledge hammer in a forcible entry event to set off a buzzer. It is one of eight events that must all be completed in less than 11 minutes on a pass-fail basis. | Phil Kadner/For the Sun-Times

I was invited to the physical ability testing center for MABAS 24 (that’s short for Mutual Aid Box Alarm System Division 24), which includes 19 Illinois south suburbs and Munster, Indiana. These communities pooled together about $70,000 of their own money, donated through fund drives, to purchase equipment for the testing center which they hope will eventually draw firefighter candidates from throughout the country.

Alex Griff, a Hazel Crest firefighter who is the CPAT manager, explained the sequence of eight testing events which sounded like a Ninja Warrior course on steroids, only these exercises are actually simplified versions of every firefighters’ reality.

Event 1, Griff explained, may actually be the toughest. Wearing a vest weighted with 50 pounds and another 12.5 pounds of weight on each shoulder (to simulate breathing apparatus and protective clothing), candidates must walk 60 steps a minute in 3 minutes 20 seconds (200 steps total) on a stair-climbing machine.

The shoulder weights are removed before they traverse the 85 feet to Event 2, a fire hose drag and pull, but the 50-pound vests remain for the rest of the test.

Event 3 is an equipment carry. Two pieces of equipment, weighing approximately 25 pounds each, are carried about 150 feet. No running is allowed, I was told, because firefighters are now warned that too many injuries and mistakes occur when firefighters run.

Event 4 is a ladder raise and extension, using ropes to raise the extended ladder. If during this process the candidate releases the rope and allows the ladder to slide back down, he fails the test.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because in real life other firefighters would be holding the sides of the ladder and they could lose a finger if you let it slide,” Griff said.

Event 5 is simulated forcible entry through a locked door. Swinging a 10-pound sledge hammer into a metal plate with a sensor attached, the candidate must continue hammering away until a buzzer sounds indicating he or she has used sufficient force to bust the door down.

Event 6 simulates a search through a smoke-filled room. The candidate must crawl through a wooden maze with no light. The maze includes obstructions. Candidates who are claustrophobic will fail.

The final two events include a simulated rescue (dragging a 170-pound dummy 150 feet) and a ceiling breach and pull with a pike (as if there were a fire in an attic).

Any serious error results in failing the test.

Not all fire departments require the CPAT test for hiring (including some in MABAS 24). And once a person actually lands a job, I was told, most departments require further training before they can actually be put to work.

Just one more thing to remember: None of these events simulate a real fire on a 95-degree day, or in wind chills of 20 below zero, when your life and those of others depend on split second decisions.

Email: philkadner@gmail.com

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