ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, Md.-- For three years, county fire and personnel officials argued new recruits didn't need to mentor with firefighters before joining the academy.
For three years, they defended their decision to drop a rigorous, 12-week testing program from the hiring process, arguing with the fire union that it was too time-consuming and expensive to run.
But then County Executive John R. Leopold was elected and everything changed.
Mr. Leopold last week told his new Fire Chief David L. Stokes he wants to replace the county's current $1,500 test for the more intensive $25,000 one.
"I believe that is a good program that we ought to use in the county," Mr. Leopold said of the nationally endorsed Candidate Physical Ability Test.
He said he does not yet know how he will pay for the new test, especially in light of his plan to trim 10 percent from the county's budget.
The fire department actually used the CPAT test for two years, but dropped it in 2003 as the county streamlined its hiring process in order to hire more than 130 new firefighters in three years. Two classes later - neither of which required physical tests for admission to the academy - the county adopted the less-stringent, easier-to-administer, Cooper test.
Under the CPAT test, applicants were required to spend 12 weeks training with a firefighter to complete a timed obstacle course. The test includes a stair climb, hose drag, equipment carry, dummy rescue and several other activities that emulate common firefighter duties.
The Cooper test, however, checks a person's physical fitness by looking at timed runs, bench presses, pushups, sit-ups and a vertical jump. The county grades applicants on a sliding scale, with younger men having to do substantially better than older women.
Prior to 2002, the county didn't use any physical-agility test.
When the department initially switched physical tests, county officials said CPAT was redundant and unnecessary. Fire officials said new recruits would still have to attend and graduate from the fire academy to become a firefighter.
But last week, a spokesman backed away from the department's old stance.
"I can't speak for the fire chief and personnel officer who are no longer here," said Battalion Chief Stuart McNicol, county fire spokesman.
In the final months of County Executive Janet S. Owens last term, Personnel Officer Mark Atkisson quit and Chief Ronald D. Blackwell was forced out.
Chief McNicol said only that the department felt the switch - which happened before Chief Blackwell joined the department in August 2003 - was the "best for the department at the time."
He said the hiring push is over and the new fourth shift goes into effect later this month.
"Now that the urgency to hire for the fourth shift has past, I think we can go back to a more diligent hiring process," Chief McNicol said.
While the county plans to reinstate the test, it probably won't happen anytime soon.
"We're going to have to budget money for it," said Chief McNicol, adding that the department isn't hiring a new class right now. "I wouldn't anticipate anything happening until next fiscal year (July)."
According to a Dec. 1 memorandum signed by Chief Blackwell and Acting Personnel Officer John O'Conner, the county spent $100,000 buying equipment and $125,000 administering the CPAT test in 2002 and 2003.
Mr. Leopold, however, said he read a report - he could not name it - that showed recruits who passed the CPAT were less likely to get injured on the job.
"There could be cost savings to the taxpayers," he said.
That flies in the face of the county's memorandum, which argued that the more-expensive CPAT was biased against women and could lead to lawsuits.
"To continue CPAT in Anne Arundel County would expose the County and the (International Association of Fire Fighters), Local 1563 to potential discrimination claims," the memo said.
The memo also said the test would need to be validated for use here - meaning someone would have to determine if the exam actually tests whether a recruit can perform the essential functions of the job.
"It is unlikely that the county can validate CPAT for future use," the memo said.
County Auditor Teresa Sutherland noted in her report that women failed the CPAT more than men. Of the 63 recruits who took the CPAT and entered the academy, only four were women. Of the 100 recruits who have taken the Cooper Test, 19 were women.
Bob Stevens, president of the local fire union, praised Mr. Leopold's new push for the test and said it's working fine in other departments.
"It's a proven tool nationwide that allows us to make sure that the people coming into the department know exactly what they are getting into before even starting the academy," Mr. Stevens said, noting that the New York Fire Department is now using the test. "Obviously we are very excited."
Republished with permission of The Capital.