Yelling “Fire” in a Crowded Theater

BY FRANK RICCI

This commentary is in response to “A Matter of National Security” by Joseph B. Muhammad, president of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters (IABPFF), which was a commentary on the Supreme Court case Ricci V. DeStefano (Fire Commentary, Fire Engineering, September 2009). Having a constructive conversation that is honest and responsible is imperative to encourage an open dialogue. However, the IABPFF and its local chapter (Fire Birds) have been contradicting and misrepresenting the facts of the case. My intention is only to set the record straight and not to retry a case we already won. The IABFF would like firefighters to be viewed as numbers and statistics instead of as individuals. The polarized views in this case, from both sides, may be hard to reconcile, but I do believe that the IABFF can play a positive role moving forward. Low expectations are also a form of bigotry that holds people back. Anyone, regardless of race, can succeed in the fire service.

 

BACKGROUND

 

In 2004, the City of New Haven felt not enough minorities would be promoted and that the political price of complying with Title VII, the City’s civil service rules, and the charter would be too high. The belief that citizens should be reduced to racial statistics is flawed and only divides people who don’t wish to be divided along racial lines. The very reason we have civil service rules is to root out politics, discrimination, and nepotism, although our case demonstrates that these ills can still exist if the rules of merit aren’t followed.

The IABFF supported the City’s position in the case but fails to mention that the City conceded in the record and with statements made in open court that both tests were job-related, valid, and professionally developed to minimize disparities among subgroups. After the exams were thrown out, the City could not come up with an alternative testing approach that would be equally as valid and less discriminatory as the exams that were originally administered. The Supreme Court also found that changing the weights of the exams would not be equally valid. The City went to great lengths to ensure the tests were fair and measured the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for command positions. The City only questioned the results.

It was disheartening to learn that the IABFF and its local chapter put forth the position that, “No blacks and only two Hispanic applicants qualified for promotions based on their scores.” This statement and the assertion that the petitioners put forth the position that minorities are “otherwise intellectually lacking” are absurd. They represented that these exams were only paper and pencil tests that did not measure the skills needed for the positions. These false attacks were the equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. The result caused a visceral response that led to political panic that only served to distract from the real issues. We as firefighters understand that panic blurs perceptions and can have devastating effects. Although Americans are entitled to disagree—and disagreement is one of the sources of our strength as a nation—it is irresponsible not to have an honest conversation.

 

THE REVIEW OF THE EXAMS

 

The IABFF relies on the opinions of testing experts who have never seen the test! Our top administrator Chief Michael Grant and Assistant Chief Ronald Dumas both were for certifying the tests. The City had two external experts review the tests. Vincent Lewis, a retired fire captain from Michigan, appeared in front of the civil service board and stated that candidates “should know the material” and that the “questions were relevant for both exams.” He also commended the City for preparing a road map on what was needed to be studied and offered the following explanations for the adverse impact: “Whites usually outperform some of the minorities on testing” and “More whites take the exam.” It is interesting to note Dumas and Lewis are black.

The other expert, Christopher Hornick, talked about assessment centers and essentially gave out his business card, saying that the best option might be to “certify the list as it exists” but “for the future” his company “certainly would like to help you if we can.” Recorded documents obtained from Hornick’s company confirm that assessment centers have been known to have an adverse impact as well. If there was some panacea of testing, wouldn’t there be a law mandating departments to give only that type of exam?

If you look only at statistics, you will find disparities among the races in all forms of testing. The City spent more than $100,000 on test development that contained numerous measures to provide a fair test that would measure each candidate based on knowledge, skills, and abilities. There were no objections to the tests during development or after they were administered. The candidate evaluations after the test also supported the validity of the exams. The testing company conducted painstaking analyses of both officer positions in which minorities were overrepresented. It was only after the City released the results based solely on race did the controversy begin.

 

THE EXAMS

 

The IABFF would like you to believe that these tests were based on irrelevant material and were only multiple choice. These exams contained a written portion and an oral assessment. The written test was drawn from material that any firefighter would find to be relevant.

A reading list was given to each candidate and contained books as well as particular chapters that meet our department’s needs. The reading list also contained information on where to obtain the information. The reading list included our own standard operating procedures and rules and regulations. The books included John Norman’s Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics, Vincent Dunn’s Command and Control of Fires and Emergencies, Fire Engineering’s The Fire Chief’s Handbook, and Francis L. Brannigan’s Building Construction for the Fire Service.

The tests were also written at a 10th-grade reading level, and candidates were allowed to fail the written and proceed to the oral assessment in an attempt to limit disparities. For the oral and written components, the testing company I/O Solutions (IOS) interviewed incumbent officers, rode along on fire apparatus and observed on-duty officers, and wrote job-analysis questionnaires that were administered to other incumbent officers in our department. The Supreme Court found “at every stage of the job analyses, IOS, by deliberate choice, oversampled minority firefighters to ensure the results—which IOS would use to develop the examinations—would not unintentionally favor white candidates.”

The oral assessment panels had 30 assessors from around the country. They were all officers, and their resumes were approved by our department’s administration. They were required to go through training on how to properly evaluate each candidate. All assessors were from out of state to limit the chance of their knowing any of the test takers. Each panel was made up of three evaluators—one white, one black, and one Hispanic. Each panel was required to give a consensus score to ensure that one member of the panel did not try to sink a candidate’s score.

 

TEST RACIAL BREAKDOWNS

 

Lieutenant’s test: 77 firefighters took it (43 W, 19 B, and 15 H); 34 passed (25 W, 6 B, and 3 H); and the number of promotions that would have been made over the life of the list was 13 W and 3 B.

Captain’s test: 41 lieutenants took it (25 W, 8 B, and 8 H); 22 passed (16 W, 3 B, and 3 H); and the number of promotions that would have been made over the life of the list was 6 W and 2 H.

A few reasons contributed to candidates not performing well on the test regardless of their race: Some test takers worked two jobs, some did not purchase the books, some failed to fully apply themselves for family reasons, and many just took the test for experience. In contrast, the candidates who did well regardless of race have common themes: They put their lives on hold to study, they applied themselves through their entire career, and many have been decorated and have attended extra training classes that they paid for out of their own pockets. (Note: There are no social economical issues at play, as we are all governed under the same collective bargaining unit and make the same amount of money.)

 

LESSONS LEARNED

 

Diversity is important, but not at the cost of sacrificing merit. The real threats to our nation based on our service boil down to staffing, training, and leadership. Despite what some of our political leaders may think, you need all three to safely, efficiently, and effectively mitigate any incident. To secure the future of our service, we must become active in the political process to ensure adequate staffing, quality training, and merit-based promotions. Many forget that the fire officer’s highest priority that stands equal to providing appropriate direction on the fireground is training company members for the next emergency.

This case has already had a national impact and will continue to ensure fairness for all. The notion that this case changed the rules of the game could not be farther from the truth. Title VII was always meant to protect us all. The case just clarified and gave guidance to departments across the nation. This was my understanding five years ago, and that understanding has not changed with the ruling from the high court. The court simply made it clearer that any city or town would need “a strong basis of evidence” to scuttle any exam.

Firefighters have a right to know that the men and women they follow were selected fairly and equitably and that no one was given an unfair advantage. The IABFF should consider the minority officers who would serve as role models for all races and change their focus from trying to protect an advantage to education and community involvement. The best way to increase diversity is to teach the man to fish.

I hope for the day when I will stand shoulder to shoulder with the IABFF to move forward. Their members have accomplished and continue to accomplish a lot of good with regard to community service (fire safety, coat drives, and meals for families in need). I have witnessed their dedication to the community; however, their position on hiring and promotions has been contrary to public safety. We all need to continue to root out racism, as we should all stand vigilant to ensure the processes our departments adopt are free from discrimination, politics, and nepotism.

Achievement is neither limited nor determined by race but by skills, dedication, commitment, and character. Ours is not a job that can be handed out without regard to merit. The IABFF position is also unfair to those minority officers who fairly competed in that they may be viewed as having had an unfair advantage for any reason whatsoever. The current system, albeit designed with the best of intentions, has allowed minority officers to be promoted under a cloud of suspicion. As unfair as that may seem, that was the reality. This Supreme Court decision lifts that cloud from this day forward. Every firefighter who looks at an officer regardless of ethnic and racial group will know that that individual competed fairly, succeeded, and earned that rank and the respect that goes with it. The lesson was made clear: People should be viewed as individuals, not statistics, and if you work hard you can succeed. For that, we thank the Supreme Court.

FRANK RICCI is a co-founder of FirefighterSafety.net. He is an adjunct instructor for the New Haven (CT) Fire Department and Emergency Training Solutions and is an FDIC instructor. He has been a lead consultant for Yale University on several studies. He is a contributing author of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning (CRC Press, 2008) and Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009). Ricci developed the Fire Engineering DVDs Smoke Showing, Firefighter Survival Techniques/Prevention to Intervention, and Live Fire Training in Acquired Structures. He is a co-creator of Fire Engineering’s Tactical Building Blocks Poster Series and has hosted Training Minutes on FireEngineering.com.

 

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