Firefighter Exam Debate in Hamden Sparks Discussion on Diversity, Testing Standards


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HAMDEN — Town officials have been locked in a monthslong debate over whether to allow the fire department to hire firefighters with certifications other than the nationally recognized Candidate Physical Ability Test. Some say the move may lower standards, while others believe it could increase diversity in the applicant pool, especially for women.

Currently, incoming firefighters must take and pass the CPAT. But at a July 18 meeting of the Civil Service Commission, Chair Andrea Lobo said Mayor Lauren Garrett’s administration wanted to expand the testing options for people applying to be entry-level firefighter paramedics. 

Fire Commission Chair Gary Tinney also spoke in favor of expanding testing options beyond the CPAT, saying at the commission’s November meeting that the current test made it difficult for departments to diversify. 

“These barriers — they’re blatant, they’re up front and the numbers speak to what I’m talking about,” Tinney said.

Tinney told CT Examiner that Hamden had not hired a female firefighter in 20 years. 

“If you have a department like we have in Hamden, and there isn’t a female — we’ve got to identify a tool that’s going to work,” he said. “We’re not saying lessen the qualification. We’re saying … give these candidates the proper training to pass the CPAT if that’s a concern.” 

Tinney noted that several fire departments in Connecticut’s large cities have their own tests — Hartford offers the HPAT, and New Britain offers the NBPAT.  

New Britain Fire Chief Raul Ortiz told CT Examiner that the city’s fire department created its own test after local applicants encountered challenges when trying to take the CPAT. There’s only one state facility in Meriden that offers the test, he said, and slots often fill up quickly.

“Oftentimes, many of our city residents didn’t know about the CPAT or had considered firefighting as a profession until they saw the posting, at which time, they would look to get this CPAT card and find that it was either booked or not available,” Ortiz said. “We believed it was a disservice to our residents to not afford them the opportunity to apply for a position in the city they live in.” 

He also noted the steep $185 cost to take the CPAT exam could deter people from taking it. New Britain offers its test for a “minimal fee,” he said, making it more accessible for those who are financially strapped. 

PJ Norwood, director of training at the Connecticut Fire Academy, acknowledged that weather limitations at the outdoor Meriden facility affect the number of sessions it can offer. However,  he said the academy has been steadily increasing its test offerings and that, in his three years there, they have not rejected anyone due to a lack of available spots.

Regarding the fee, Norwood said some municipal departments pay for a certain number of tests. He said the fee includes five days of orientation and practice sessions for the CPAT, allowing applicants to try on equipment and walk through the stations. 

Norwood said he couldn’t speak to the validity of New Britain’s or Hartford’s tests, but that he’d want to ensure that firefighters were physically fit and well-trained. 

“The CPAT test stands as a fair and fitting evaluation of the fitness level of entry-level firefighters. When it comes to emergency situations, I want firefighters who have successfully passed the CPAT, not relying on some untested, unvalidated, ‘homegrown’ assessment that doesn’t hold entry-level firefighters to the same rigorous standard,” he said.  

Lobo expressed support for Hamden creating its own test during the November commission meeting, saying the department needed to be more flexible in light of a firefighter shortage.

“It’s beyond diversity. It’s about access for everybody because the pool is shrinking. We need to be smart in that regard, from a retention or recruitment perspective,” she said. 

But Commissioner Curt Andrews opposed the idea, arguing it could place public safety at risk. 

“Do you increase diversity by lowering the standards?” Andrews asked. “In order to be a firefighter, it’s a very difficult job physically and mentally. You need to be able to carry 150 [pounds] and do all sorts of things and be physically fit. And it’s OK if you’re not able to do those things. There’s a million other jobs you can do.” 

Andrews noted that New Haven, which used to have its own exam, had returned to requiring the CPAT. He also argued that all the departments who provide an alternative test have their own training centers, unlike Hamden, whose firefighters are trained at the Connecticut Fire Academy. Andrews offered to financially sponsor five female or minority candidates if the commission was willing to leave the CPAT as a requirement. 

Lobo said the fire union had rejected the proposed language to expand the job requirements to include tests other than the CPAT. Nelson Hwang, union president for the International Association of Firefighters Local representing Hamden, declined to comment on Thursday.

Hamden Fire Chief Jeffrey Naples also expressed hesitation with the new language. While he was open to using New Britain’s test, he said he didn’t want to be the sole arbiter on what exams were deemed “comparable” to the CPAT. Instead, he said he’d prefer a specific list of tests approved by town officials, rather than relying on an open-ended description. 

Naples noted it would become easier for prospective hires to take the CPAT exam with the anticipated opening of a new facility in North Haven.

“That is going to be a great resource, because now it’s right here in the neighboring town, and it’s open basically 24/7 for testing. They have a climate controlled facility that gives opportunities to test all year-round. And the financial cost is the exact same that it would cost for the CPAT up at the CT Fire Academy,” he said.  

Naples and Garrett did not respond to requests for additional comment. 

Ultimately, the commission voted to table the proposal to change the job description language for firefighter paramedics. The current job posting for EMT/firefighters on the town’s website still lists the CPAT as a requirement. 

Testing in question

There has been statewide scrutiny over the CPAT test and its effects on recruitment, particularly concerning the low representation of female firefighters. 

Last year, state legislators drafted a bill that would have created an alternative to the physical standards for one component of the CPAT. Norwood told CT Examiner that female firefighters were “up in arms” against the bill. 

“They feel that it was going to create a more difficult divisive workforce [between] males and females, and they don’t feel that there’s any reason why a female can’t pass as equal as a male, because the CPAT test is a very fair evaluation of your ability to be a firefighter,” Norwood said. 

The CPAT requires firefighter candidates to complete eight consecutive tasks — climbing stairs, dragging a fire hose, carrying equipment, extending a ladder, forced entry, search, rescue and pulling down a ceiling to check for a fire extension. They must complete all the tasks in under 10 minutes and 20 seconds while wearing a 50-pound vest, meant to simulate the protective equipment a firefighter would use. 

Fairfield firefighter Caitlin Clarkson Pereira told CT Examiner she opposed the bill, although she said it was “well-intentioned.” 

“Unfortunately, a lot of departments simply put on the bottom of their application ‘women and minority candidates strongly encouraged to apply,’ but never do anything more than that. They don’t put any money into recruiting. They don’t do public service announcements to let women know that this is a job that could lead to a fulfilling career for them,” she said. 

But Pereira also noted problems with the CPAT, such as the cost, having a single outdoor test-taking facility, and the lack of public transportation to the facility. 

“It took me quite a few attempts to pass the CPAT, and I trained for well over a year for it,” Pereira said. “But that was because I had the privilege to be able to pay for a trainer, pay CPAT course, and eventually, because I needed to pass in the summertime, I had to fly to Florida to take the test because the Connecticut facility was not open at that time.” 

As a “smaller-framed woman,” Pereira explained she had to figure out what techniques suited her body to complete each component of the test. 

Regina Wilson, a firefighter and CPAT instructor in Brooklyn, New York, said the exam can be “top-heavy,” meaning it focuses on upper body strength, which men can build up more easily, rather than the lower body strength that women have. She said it’s necessary to have certified instructors who recognize the differences in how women approach the tasks. 

“Some of these top-half heavy events have to be compensated by your lower body, where we have most of our strength — that comes from hips and thighs and stuff like that,” Wilson said. “So we have to kind of switch the narrative of where to gather your strength from. And so, if you’re not trained to effectively give that advice, you’re not going to have women that are going to be successful.” 

Wilson said the environment can also be discouraging for women. 

“There are many times that women have come to me [and] told me that they’ve been discouraged by other male trainers, or they’re sitting in a room with 100 men and it’s two women,” she said. “So how do you deal with the psyche of a woman that’s in a whole new environment that does not have a lot of people that look like them and to still feed into them that they can do it?”  

Wilson and Pereria said they believed the timing portion of the test — requiring eight tasks to be completed within 10 minutes and 20 seconds — didn’t make sense. 

“While you obviously have to be efficient on the fireground — and sometimes speed is extremely important … there’s no one following you around with a watch,” Pereira said. 

Tinney also questioned why firefighters were required to pass the CPAT exam before being hired, but are not required to get recertified as their bodies could change over the years. 

“If it was such an essential part of the process, you would think that they would have to renew or recertify every couple of years, and that’s not being done,” he said.

Norwood told CT Examiner that the CPAT is “the beginning of a wellness fitness program to keep uniformed personnel capable of safely performing fire operation tasks during their entire career.”

Pereira, who became the first firefighter hired by the Fairfield Fire Department in two decades, said she saw it as the ultimate way to help people. 

“When you don’t know how to solve a certain problem, or you’re experiencing a crisis, and you’re questioning what to do … you call the fire department,” she said.. “To show up on a call, see somebody in some sort of distress and be able to validate that distress and, by the time you leave, you know that they’re in a much better place — it’s extremely fulfilling.”

But she noted it’s taken a long time for women to be hired by Connecticut fire departments. Fairfield currently has three female firefighters out of 100 total. Groton’s Firefighters Union welcomed its first female officer this week, while West Haven’s Allingtown Fire Department added its first female firefighter earlier this month. 

Pereira said while it’s great that these departments are hiring women, it’s also long overdue. 

“These headlines … read like something you might see in the 1970s. The first woman in a department in a city in a progressive state feels extremely antiquated,” she said.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.