From The City That Never Sleeps comes another reason to stay awake at night: Last May, the Fire Department of New York graduated from its Fire Academy a woman who failed a required running test. Since then, the woman has tried and failed to pass the test five more times. She will try again on December 2. Seventh time’s a charm.
She might have been fired, but the United Women Firefighters took up her cause. The UWF is a “fraternal” group whose stated purpose is “to unite in sisterhood and promote the interests and welfare of female firefighters and female fire officers of the City of New York.” Nothing in there about protecting the city or furthering the profession of firefighting. Instead, it’s all about them.
News of the FDNY’s politically correct patience has cued the predictable chorus of complaints about relaxing standards to favor members of protected groups, but the common refrain of such complaints is the politically correct insistence that standards be the same for all. Everyone can agree to that, can’t they? Even feminists.
It’s the usual fallback position of men appalled by feminism but cowed by it as well. They say only what is safe — and ignore the bigger issue, which is that same standards won’t protect us from burning alive in our homes if the standards are so low that anyone can meet them.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts requires that its firefighters be able to drag (not lift and carry) a 125-pound dummy 30 feet. How many adults in America weigh less than 125 pounds these days? Not many. And what if you are overcome by smoke in your basement? Tough luck, I guess. The state’s puny firefighters won’t be able to carry you out.
There’s a history to such standards, and it, too, takes us to New York. In the 1970’s, the FDNY worried that political pressure to hire women would force it to hire weaklings, so they devised a test to rank candidates according to physical ability. They were already ranking candidates according to mental ability with a scored written test. It only made sense to do the same with the physical test.
But of course women faired poorly on the physical test, so they sued and won. In Berkman v. City of New York, a federal district court ordered the FDNY to devise a new test friendlier to women, which it did. The new test was pass/fail with a bar set so low that 38 women were declared “qualified” and hired.
The FDNY later asked the court to consider a similar test, pass/fail but also ranking the candidates who passed according to how well they passed. While the court was still thinking it over, the FDNY went ahead and administered the test, but that didn’t help their case. The results only revealed how poorly women performed compared to men. The FDNY could only accept 6,500 candidates for training, and 6,780 men scored higher than the highest-scoring women. When the results of the physical test were combined with the results of the written test, just two women made the cut.
What did the district court do? Guess. That’s right: Sided with the women. That’s how standards are set these days, so it’s not enough that standards be the same. They have to actually mean something.