New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
Barriers remain for women in fire service
From gear to training, women firefighters say they face many obstacles
When Caitlin Clarkson Pereira was working to become a firefighter, she flew to Florida to train for the Candidate Physical Ability Test, or CPAT.
Connecticut does not have a year-round facility where wouldbe firefighters can practice the CPAT, prompting some candidates to travel to other states.
“I saw it as an investment, and I had people to look after my daughter. The job I was working at the time was mostly remote,” said Clarkson Pereira, who has served the Fairfield Fire Department for a year and a half. “If I were a single parent, if I worked an hourly wage job, if I didn’t have the credit card, I wouldn’t have been able to do that—and I certainly would not be a firefighter today.”
The CPAT, a prerequisite for most Connecticut fire departments, is a grueling series of exercises candidates must complete while wearing a 50-pound vest; for one of the exercises, an additional 25 pounds is added.
Men and women alike often need multiple attempts to pass the CPAT, which requires physical strength as well as endurance and familiarity with proper techniques.
A pending state bill meant to increase the number of women in firefighting proposes changing the CPAT standards for women. But it has prompted pushback from firefighters’ associations, members of the public and women in the field.
Women like Clarkson Pereira say it’s not a change in standards that the state needs to diversify the fire service — instead, they say Connecticut needs increased access to training.
Some women worry having a different CPAT standard will backfire in a field where women already are marginalized.
“As a woman in the fire service, things can already be a little more complicated for us from the beginning,” said Clarkson Pereira. “When you put out a bill like that that adjusts a requirement just for women, it creates an opportunity for people to question safety, for people who don’t typically say the quiet part out loud — the ‘this is why women shouldn’t be in the fire service’— it emboldens them to say that.”
Origins of the bill
In 2020, only about five percent of career firefighters nationwide were women, according to a National Fire Protection Association report.
Today, the Hamden Fire Department does not have any career firefighters who are women.
Mayor Lauren Garrett says the CPAT has been a significant barrier in getting women on the job.
Last year, two women made Hamden’s eligibility list, ranking second and third on the written and oral exams, she said.
But before they can go before the Hamden Fire Commission for an interview, Garrett said, they need to pass the CPAT.
The women have not yet been successful and neither of them can afford to fly to Florida, according to Garrett, who said the candidates will need to wait until the next testing opportunity to practice.
The CPAT test in Connecticut is typically only offered in the spring and fall at the state’s Meriden facility; candidates can practice there, but they must already have paid for the test and are limited to two orientation visits and three attempts at the CPAT, according to firefighters who spoke with Hearst Connecticut Media.
It costs $175 for a fiveday CPAT session, which includes an orientation, practice sessions and test, according to the state’s website.
This month, Hamden’s state delegation introduced House Bill No. 5501, which proposes amending the general statutes “to establish physical ability test requirements for female candidates for firefighter positions that provide an alternative to the fifty-pound simulated vest test component of the Candidate Physical Ability Test.”
State Sen. Jorge Cabrera, D-Hamden, said the legislation is only a concept and has yet to be fleshed out. The delegation introduced it because increasing recruitment of women to the Hamden Fire Department is a priority for Garrett, he said.
Garrett said she was not involved in drafting the language of the bill but thinks the issue needs to be studied.
The legislation has sparked pushback from groups who argue it could harm public safety.
“While we are supportive of the concepts of equity, inclusion and diversity in our workforce we must be careful on how we achieve the desired results,” Dave Dobbs, president of the Bridgeport Firefighters’ union, said in a statement. “Lowering widely accepted standards relative to a candidates ability to perform physically taxing maneuvers isn’t a good idea. Firefighting, as you can imagine, can be physically demanding and punishing work.”
On Jan. 23, the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut issued a statement opposing the bill.
“Currently, the Connecticut Fire Service relies on the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) in order to identify a standard level of individual physical fitness that the duties of firefighter would be required to perform at any given time,” the statement says. “The CPAT process is a nationally accepted and validated assessment tool … that has been in use since 1997.”
(Career firefighters must only pass the CPAT to enter the fire service. They are not required to retake it after starting the job.)
“I obviously don’t want to compromise safety.
That’s not my goal,” said Cabrera. “If there is a legitimate barrier that is causing difficulty for women to get into the fire service and it doesn’t compromise safety, then we should look at that.”
“No one is looking to lower standards here,” he said.
In Bridgeport, another way forward
Neither Bridgeport Fire Chief Lance Edwards nor city firefighter Nicole Meyer believe it is necessary to change the CPAT standard to get more women on the job.
Instead, they say helping people prepare for the test is a better solution.
Several years ago, in an effort to add women to its ranks, the Bridgeport Fire Department opened an in-house CPAT training facility, according to Edwards.
“In the last three years we’ve hired five women. I don’t think we’ve ever hired that many women in that short a period of time,” said Edwards. “In order for us to increase the number of women on the job, we needed to expose them to the test.”
One of those hires was Nicole Meyer, who said she visited the training center several times daily when she was preparing for the CPAT.
She does not think she would have passed without it, she said.
“The only way you can go to the CPAT center in Meriden is if you pay to take the test,” said Meyer. “Some people can’t make (the trial runs) because they work so they just show up for the actual test.”
Bridgeport’s center was free to use, and Meyer was able to bring her kids there, she said.
The CPAT center is open during the city’s recruitment drives, according to Edwards, who said Bridgeport has been able to operate it five days a week and sometimes at night, to accommodate trainees’ schedules.
When Meyer attended, the city had hired a trainer to staff the center and show newcomers how to prepare, she said.
But initiatives like Bridgeport’s aren’t free. The city was able to use grant money to put together the CPAT center, which cost about $20,000, Edwards said.
“In order to really expose people (to the CPAT), you need to really expend some funds,” he said.
Currently, 11 Bridgeport firefighters are women, according to Edwards, who said the agency has 294 funded positions.
Officials who spoke with Hearst Connecticut Media for this story said the presence of women can be invaluable in certain scenarios that arise on the job.
“A lot of our calls in Hamden are not just for fires. Most of them are actually EMT-related,” said Garrett, Hamden’s mayor. “Sometimes when you’re at a call and the patient is a woman or a child, they prefer the female paramedics (or) EMTs to respond to them.”
Garrett this month met with several women firefighters to discuss challenges they faced on the job.
“One of the firefighters said if they’re in a fire, and there’s a small space, she’s the one going in there,” Garrett recalled. “There are a lot of ways that women are very good in using the strength that they have — that we have — to help people.”
Changing the narrative
For Connecticut Department of Developmental Services Fire Chief Shelly L. Carter, it was a fateful day about 25 years ago that put her on the path to becoming a firefighter.
She remembered how she was taking her son on a walk when he saw a fire truck and ran up to it, fascinated.
Carter was in her late 20s at the time, and one of the firefighters told her she should consider a career in the fire service, she said.
At five-foot-four, Carter was stunned; she did not believe she would ever get hired, she said.
When she went home that day, a member of her household laughed when she told him what had occurred, she said. He said