Oct. 13--The St. Paul Fire Department is looking for women -- some really fit, determined women.
Next year, the department will be accepting applications for new firefighters and conducting tests to create a new eligibility list for hires. Fire Chief Tim Butler has said one of his goals is to create more diversity in the department, including hiring more minority and female firefighters.
So on Saturday, at the fire training center next to Midway Stadium, the department put on a Women's Expo, a recruiting event designed to give potential women applicants an idea of the rewards and challenges of what firefighters describe as a job like no other. The expo also exposed women to a taste of the hurdles they would have overcome to get that job.
One of the biggest obstacles: the physical performance test, a high-intensity replication of the real-life demands of the job, including scaling a five-story tower while burdened with more than 100 pounds of gear; hauling an awkward, pressurized hose across the pavement; dragging a 175-pound rescue dummy to a safe spot; carrying a 47.5-pound exhaust fan; and moving a stubborn steel beam by smacking it over and over with an 8-pound mallet.
When the fire department last administered the tests in 2010 for its current hiring list, men and women applicants passed a written test at about the same rate. But only about a third of the women who took the physical test passed it, compared with about 96 percent of the male test takers.
Male applicants also outnumbered female applicants by a ratio of about 9 to 1. So the city ended up with a hiring list of 28 women and 951 men who had passed the written and physical exams.
And to have a realistic shot of getting interviewed and becoming a firefighter, you have to do better than just pass the test. You have to get a good score. Out of 2,361 people who applied in 2010, the city has hired only about 70 firefighters. Next year, the city expects to see even more applicants, about 3,000.
"Get your mind in the right place," Ann Majerus told about 30 women who attended a morning session of the expo, an event that was equal parts recruiting effort, coaching session and cold dose of reality.
"It's the best job ever, but just passing is not good enough," said Majerus, a fire engine operator and one of the first women firefighters hired by the city in 1992.
"Today, we want to break down some of the fear of the unknown," said St. Paul First District Chief Stacy Hohertz. "This is a great career for a woman. It's challenging for anyone to get into, but it's definitely well worth it."
Beka Tremont, 31, of Minneapolis was one of the women who showed up for the expo, which included practice on the physical test, a chance to climb ladders and spray water and information about pay, benefits and work conditions. Tremont, a construction project manager, said she went through the St. Paul Fire Department application in 2010.
"I've always wanted to do this. It seems fun and rewarding," she said.
But Tremont said she didn't start training early enough three years ago and didn't do well enough in the physical test.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," she said.
On Saturday, she suited up again in a helmet, firefighter coat, weighted vest and air tank for a practice run at the test. She didn't have a problem carrying a bundle of hose up a five-story tower or dragging a hose, but she stalled out hauling a dummy that weighed 45 pounds more than she did.
"The big stumbling block is the dummy," said St. Paul firefighter and paramedic Mike Cox. "One hundred seventy-five pounds of dead weight, literally."
During the actual exam, test administrators are not allowed to make encouraging statements. But at the expo, firefighters gave tips to would-be applicants on the most efficient way to schlep a dummy or the finer points of mallet-whacking.
Cox said the physical test isn't a matter of brute strength. Endurance, training, technique and determination are critical to getting a good score. He said you've done the test correctly if you feel like throwing up at the end.