Thursday, September 06, 2007

St. Louis Fire Department Entrance Exam Deemed Too Difficult

(Updates at bottom of page)

The Entrance Exam Has Been Thrown Out After more than 70% of Applicants (many African American) Failed. The City Will Now Search For An Easier Test.

Report from the St. Louis Post Dispatch

City drops firefighters' entry test
By Jake Wagman


St. Louis — Hundreds of aspiring firefighters failed an entrance exam this summer because they could not answer basic math and reading questions, according to the city's personnel chief.

More than 70 percent of about 1,350 applicants failed the test, said personnel director Richard R. Frank. The city plans to scrap the results of the exam and retest all of the applicants at a later date.

That decision comes amid simmering tension in the department over another exam, the promotional test for existing firefighters, that was the subject of a prolonged federal lawsuit alleging racial bias.

"The last thing I want to do is use some examination that is going to be so controversial that it lands us in court again," Frank said Wednesday.

He said he had thrown out the entrance exam because he could not rely on a test where more than seven out of 10 applicants failed.

Even so, Frank added, the results seem to confirm a larger trend affecting the municipal work force.

"We're learning that many, many job applicants are coming to the job without basic skills," Frank said. "The schools are doing a questionable job of preparing people."

The July test was the first part of an entrance exam that applicants must pass before qualifying to take a physical performance test. Candidates who pass both phases, plus a background and medical screening, are eligible to become fire privates, the lowest rank in the department.

But, Frank said, the vast majority of applicants taking this year's test did not fare well enough on the reading comprehension or arithmetic questions to advance.

"They obviously could not read and respond to the questions appropriately," Frank said.

The city typically does not release test questions, but Frank offered one problem that he said would be similar: Assume a length of hose is 30 feet long. A fire is 90 feet away. How many lengths of hose are needed to reach the fire?

"We're talking about elementary level skill," Frank said.

Frank said he did not have immediately available the passage rates for previous entrance exams. But he said the makers of the test, a company called Ergometrics, told him that the city's failure rate was "unprecedented."

This is the first time the city used Ergometrics, based near Seattle. Fire Chief Sherman George suggested using the firm, Frank said.

George declined to answer questions about the entrance exam.

Ergometrics was founded in 1980 and produces entry-level exams for a wide range of jobs, from prison guards to bank tellers. The company did not answer repeated requests for comment on Wednesday.

The city spent about $62,000 for the exam from Ergometrics, Frank said. City officials are now looking for another test provider to supply a new entrance exam.

Last week, all of the applicants who took the entrance exam were sent a letter saying they would have to take the test again "due to the extremely high failure rate." The applicants were not told if they passed or failed.

The prospect of sitting through another three-hour exam riles some applicants who thought they did well.

Tad Behrmann, 27, took the test along with his brother and some friends. He described the exam as "extremely rudimentary."

"If there was a huge failure rate, then why not just let these people who failed fail?" Behrmann asked.

That sentiment is shared by the firefighters union.

"We want the best. I don't think it's asking too much for someone to read, write and do basic math," said Chris Molitor, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 73. "This test was designed to eliminate those people who could not perform those basic functions. It sounds to me as if the test was doing its job."

The union has sparred with Chief George over the issue of Fire Department promotions. The dispute stems from a lawsuit, filed by a group of black firefighters, that contended that the 2004 promotional tests for captain and battalion chief discriminated against African-Americans.

A judge ruled that they did not, and both the union and Mayor Francis Slay have pressured George to end his hold on the promotions. Though George has not publicly committed to making the promotions, he has begun to schedule interviews.

Capt. Addington Stewart, president of the Firefighters Institute for Racial Equality, which was part of the 2004 lawsuit, said the entrance exam is the latest example of a need for better communication from the city about testing procedures.

"This thing is not going away until we talk about how these things are being conducted," Stewart said.

Hear a related discussion with Mayor Francis Slay (there are also issues with the Police Department... the discussion focuses on the Fire Department towards the end of the interview).

Read the letter that was sent out to all applicants, advising them that the test results were being thrown out and that they would have to be re-tested with a new exam. See here (pdf)

See Additional report from KMOV TV (CBS)

Report from KSDK TV (NBC)


In order to fully understand this report, you have to have a little more information about the politics that have been taking place in the St. Louis Fire Department over the past few years. There has basically been a Civil War between the Black Fire Chief, Sherman George, and white Fire Fighters. The Fire Chief wants to see more minorities in senior positions. Existing Fire Fighters who have taken the promotions exam have also been caught in the middle of the conflict between the Chief, the White Fire Fighters and the Public Safety Director. So it's not only about the entrance exam for new hires...but there is also controversy surrounding the "fairness" of the promotions exam for Commanders as well. This has been an ongoing saga for much of the past year.

The Chief, and a handful of Black Fire Fighters believe that the promotions test (like the applicant exam) is not fair. Chief George was so adamantly opposed to the test that he refused to make promotions based on the results until a Court case was settled. Several weeks ago a Court ruled that the test was in fact fair, which cleared the way for Chief George to make the appropriate promotions, but he has yet to act, angering the Mayor, the white Fire Fighters, and the White public safety director. Hear an Audio Report from late August, courtesy of KMOX radio.

My Take:

I have not arrived at a solid opinion on this one way or another. However, the situation raises some interesting, and troubling questions. Should examinations be dumbed down because a large segment of the test takers (many who happen to be African American) are unable to answer the questions correctly? Should standards be lowered to accommodate minority applicants or any applicants for that matter, who lack certain basic skills? Many of the reporters & commentators in St. Louis are "afraid to go there"....but this is really what this whole controversy is all about, despite the PC claims that it is not about race.

I am generally against most forms of race based affirmative action, because (in most cases) I don't believe that it serves our best interests as African Americans. It only opens us up to be labeled as "less than".... "those who couldn't cut it fair and square", etc. However, I do believe in some forms of affirmative action related to access to education. I do believe in giving folks that initial boost that will put them in the game on a level playing field. But once in the game, they are on their own, IMO. Youth who grow up poor are in that position through no fault of their own. Therefore, they deserve a shot.... whether they are Black, White, Red, Yellow or Green.

But these kinds of reports are problematic. I believe that the Black Firefighters would be better off creating tutoring and educational programs for the members of their group in order to raise the standards, rather than fighting to lower the bar. I'm in somewhat of a conundrum on this one... the two Souls (as DuBois would say) are going back and fourth.


UPDATE: Fire Chief Given Ultimatum on Promotions

Read an updated post here, which includes interviews of key players.



St. Louis Fire Chief Defies The Mayor


rikyrah said...

I'm going to be very skeptical of this story, only because of the happenings with the Police Exam in my city.

Two out of three of the parts of the exam were Objective - meaning that - you passed or you fail. The written exam, and the physical exam. The guidelines were set, and you either crossed or you didn't.

Where it seems that the BLACK applicants 'went down' were the SUBJECTIVE part of the exam, where you had to LITERALLY ANSWER verbally 'the situations' that they put forth...they put you in a situation, and you had to explain how you, as a policeman, were to get out of it. The trick here, was that, these people, no longer were a NUMBER, and they got to HEAR them..their VOICES indicated to those that the applicant was African -American. And lo and behold, they pass the OBJECTIVE (race blind) parts with flying colors, yet can't pass the SUBJECTIVE (they know, for the most part by voices the race of folks).

See where I'm going with this?

So, I'm suspect about all these tests, but your suggestion about tutoring sessions makes a lot of sense. I'm just saying, maybe there's more here going on.

Brian said...


There is no interview segment in the Fire Fighters exam. That's not the issue in this case.

The exam that these candidates failed is apparently a "standard" test given to applicants nationwide.

rikyrah said...


I hear you, but hear me too.

I'd bet money, hard money, that many of those White Applicants have relatives, friends, neighbors, that help prep them for the test.

How else do you think that they get generation after generation of THEM in these positions?

I'll tell you again that I think your suggestion is a great one..

Because, it's already happening with the White applicants.


Anonymous said...

As a retired FF from the St. Louis Fire Dept I can attest that the standards of this dept have been lowered significantly since George was promoted(afirmative action).

This issue is and will always continue to be about "JOBS" for the AA community. The local Talk host liz Brown can attest to this.
Thats all she has ever said.
When they The AA community was attacking the school board when Roberti was cutting the budget with layoffs, its about Black jobs in a city of 50+ % being black.
its not about are you qualified its about I'm Black hire me cause I live in the Chocolate city of St. Louis.

Ret Fireman

Anonymous said...

Here's something that most of you don't know about Sherman George and F.I.R E. George is still a member of that group. almost Every Fire Chief before George was a member of local 73. when taking the oath of Office they were to remove themselves from being active from Local 73. Not George he still attends some meeting and has meeting with his staff which they update him(George) and vice verse. Do ya think there's a conflict of interest?

Retired FF

Anonymous said...

To Rikyrah, You say, "I'd bet hard money that Whites were tutored by fellow Whites to help them prepare for the test" This test was given by a company that gives test all over the United States, there is no "Study Guide", its based on common knowledge. It was pathetic on how easy some of the questions were. As far as the whole generation thing is concerned, I myself am a second generation FireFighter, and the only way I got to be one was through hard work and studying. My Badge wasn't given to me on a silver platter because of "Equal Opportunity." I earned mine.

Anonymous said...

If graduates of the Saint Louis Public School System cannot pass this test, then the fault lies with the SLPS.

Brian said...

Thanks NSangoma for raising that point.

It is an indictment of the public schools from all over the area (some of them at least), but especially the SLPS. It's one of the reasons why the State needed to take over like it did earlier this year.

I suspect that most of the test takers (because of the residency requirement for the job) were city residents... but several were from other parts of the metro.

I say... raise the standards, rather than lower the bar.

The job of firefighter has become more complicated over the past decade...with new equipment and with the requirement in most fire departments for Fire Fighters to become certified as EMT's. Most departments (due to costs) have tried to become more efficient by integrating services (fire fighter/EMT/Paramedic). So being able to read manuals and detailed instructions is as important as ever.

Anonymous said...

Questions good ole boys!!:

Why did the Public Safety Director resign 5 days before he was to discipline the fire chief?

How did the Public Safety Director accept a job offer from St. Louis U during the weekend?

How long has Jake "The Snake" Wagman and Mike "White Knight" owens been Knight Riders for the boy's?

How does your corn grow?..It's gittin warm boys!

Anonymous said...

This is in response to rikyrah's comment "I'd bet money, hard money, that many of those White Applicants have relatives, friends, neighbors, that help prep them for the test." This was the first time that the City of St. Louis used this exam, no current City Firefighters had any experience witht the exam that would have been helpful to any applicant. Also the company Ergometrics has practice exams available on its website. Also mind you that all applicants are legally bound with what is essentially a gag order regarding the test and its questions. Now I do realize that most would not honor that aggreement, I do feel that in such a volatile environment, no one would be willing to risk giving information on the test to any applicant. I do not feel that the test was biased or unfair, I feel that it was a fair assessment of basic skills.