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Burned

Michael Dvorak

In May 1999 the backyard of Julie Tossey's Chisago City home was transformed into a de facto firefighters' academy. Three eight-foot-long wooden railroad ties, purchased from Menards, were placed in front of her pole barn. Every day Tossey would don 50 pounds of gear--turnout coat, weighted vest, helmet, and air tank--shoulder a sledge hammer, and climb atop the two outside ties. Like a firefighter chopping through the door of a blazing building, she would then pound the middle tie with the sledgehammer, again and again, slowly moving the massive slab of wood across the dirt. In the year Tossey trained to become a St. Paul firefighter, she destroyed one railroad tie with her blows, splintering it so badly that the wood was useless.

A scavenged eight-foot tree trunk was outfitted with a rope so that she could lug it across the yard, 75 feet in one direction, 75 in the other. Sandbags were used to make a dummy that she could drag through the yard, as she would an unconscious victim from a burning building. A five-foot-high wooden platform was constructed to simulate a fire engine; Tossey would practice hauling a 58-pound hose bundle on and off of the structure. She and her husband, Ed Tossey, often wondered what the neighbors made of the strange goings-on.

The idea was to simulate every aspect of the physical test that Tossey would have to pass to fulfill her dream of becoming a St. Paul firefighter. For 11 years she had worked as a fire dispatcher in St. Paul, answering calls from harried citizens about burning buildings. She hoped to one day respond to those calls herself.

"This was not a whim," Ed says as he surveys the backyard training course from the Tossey family dining room. "I knew that she could do it."

Ed Tossey should know. He worked as a St. Paul firefighter for 13 years. While on the job, he broke his ribs falling through a floor, suffered smoke inhalation so severe that he could've died, and broke his neck and back. "If I thought for a second that she couldn't handle this job, I sure as hell wouldn't want her doing it," he insists.

Kathleen O'Connor did not have the luxury of a backyard training course to prepare for the rigors of firefighting. Nor did she have the support of a husband who knew the ins and outs of the trade. And while 40-year-old Tossey is a stocky five-foot-nine, the 49-year-old O'Connor has a more slight build, at five-foot-six.

O'Connor did have one thing going for her, though. Experience. Since 1994 she too had been employed as a fire dispatcher in St. Paul. At the same time, she worked as a paid volunteer for the Eden Prairie Fire Department. She hosed down smoldering buildings and chopped through doors, responded to false alarms and four-alarm fires. In all, O'Connor went out on more than 300 calls a year in Eden Prairie, for which she was paid $7 per trip. "She's toughed it out for 15 years and she's made a real positive contribution," says Eden Prairie Fire Chief Spencer Conrad. "She's like a family member."

Ever since joining the St. Paul Fire Department as a dispatcher O'Connor aspired to be a firefighter. She then hoped to train as a paramedic and respond to medical emergencies, an opportunity that wasn't available in Eden Prairie. She also looked forward to the jump in salary and retirement benefits that the job of full-time firefighter promised. As a single mother raising two daughters, O'Connor had found little opportunity to put money aside for the future. "We lived on next to nothing for all those years," she explains.

To some, suburban Eden Prairie may seem a far cry from the dense, century-old urbanity that is St. Paul. But O'Connor believes that when it comes to fighting fires--well, "firefighting is firefighting." She recalls the burning gasoline tanker she was dispatched to fight at 5:00 a.m. one morning in the late Eighties. The driver was burned over 90 percent of his body and did not survive. "There was just fire everywhere," O'Connor says, before pointing out that there was a similar fire last September in St. Paul. "Our calls are very much the same kinds of calls that St. Paul Fire responds to."

Tossey and O'Connor were two of seven dispatchers (six of whom were women) who took advantage of an affirmative-action program that was started a decade ago, aimed at bringing women onto the force. By the end of a yearlong vetting process that included a basic written exam and a grueling physical test, along with medical and psychological evaluations, Tossey and O'Connor were the only two dispatchers left standing. On October 16, 2000, they were to join 34 other recruits, two of whom were women, at the department's recruit orientation academy. Tossey and O'Connor believed that their days as dispatchers were over. They would retain their seniority rights, which ensured a larger paycheck and greater leverage in bidding for job benefits. Their hard work had paid off.  

Within the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21, the union that represents firefighters in St. Paul, the department's affirmative-action program has always been seen as a threat to the membership--a symbol of the weakening of physical standards within the department, and an acquiescence to the forces of political correctness. In particular, Tossey and O'Connor's promotion irritates the rank-and-file because the women's years of dispatching work would give them seniority over some firefighters already on the job.

Since the hiring process involving Tossey and O'Connor began, in May 1999, the women allege union members had worked behind the scenes to undermine the goals of the department's affirmative-action program. Tossey and O'Connor also contend that Chief Timothy Fuller and other administrators in the department implicitly sanctioned the union's efforts. When those behind-the-scenes efforts failed, the two women allege, the union and management then conspired to "wash them out" of the training academy.

Two days before Thanksgiving, on the 27th day of the department's 12-week firefighter academy, Tossey and O'Connor were both terminated and sent back to their dispatcher jobs. The reason for the dismissal, according to a letter written by Chief Fuller on November 21, 2000, was that the two had twice failed completing a series of physical tests. "As such, we must consider your health and safety, the safety of other firefighters, and most importantly the citizens of Saint Paul in our review to determine continuation in the Academy," Fuller wrote.

"They had three things going against them," reasons Ed Tossey, who until retiring at the end of December worked in administration at the St. Paul Fire Department. "One, they were women. Two, they had seniority rights. And three, they were older."

Later this month O'Connor and Tossey plan to sue for discrimination in federal court. In the suit they plan to allege that the fire department, in cahoots with the union, systematically and illegally conspired to deny them employment.

"I didn't do anything that any of those guys out there wouldn't have done," O'Connor insists. "I'm just taking advantage of an opportunity that's already there. I'm not creating it. I know I can do firefighting. I've done it for 15 years. I love firefighting."

 

Tossey and O'Connor's pending lawsuit is just the latest episode in a 13-year drama. The St. Paul Fire Department was one of the last major metropolitan fire departments to accept women for jobs and to this day remains a male-dominated stronghold. At the end of 2000, 17 of the department's 369 firefighters were women. (In Minneapolis there are 61 women working on a force of 421--one of the highest female-to-male ratios in the country.)

In 1988 the Minnesota Department of Human Rights filed suit against the City of St. Paul on behalf of a group of females charging that the physical test used to screen applicants for the firefighter academy was discriminatory. In 1990 an administrative law judge ruled in the women's favor and barred further use of the test. A settlement was arbitrated in February 1994. Certain changes to the physical test were agreed upon, such as the elimination of a timed running test. And the city agreed to hire and pay for a consultant to make further recommendations for change. The department's first round of recruitment scheduled after the settlement took place in 1999, the year Tossey and O'Connor applied to become firefighters.

But before physical tests could be given in early October 1999, the process was mired in controversy. The first source of disagreement was the victim-rescue portion of the test, where applicants are asked to transport a 175-pound mannequin 100 feet. Initially the candidates were told they could drag the dummy. But a week before the test was to take place there was a rule change: It was now necessary to hold the mannequin in a bear hug and lift its buttocks off the ground.

Nine of the eighty-six women who took the test passed. Immediately afterward seven female applicants filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, contending that the directions were misleading. Less than a week later, on October 28, Mayor Norm Coleman conceded that the city had "messed up" and ordered a retest.

In early March, before the second round of physical tests, 12 female applicants, including Tossey and O'Connor, filed suit in Ramsey County District Court against the City of St. Paul, its fire department, and Chief Fuller. In addition to the charge that the victim-rescue portion of the test was misleading, the lawsuit argued that there were not enough properly sized gloves or vests available for women. They also argued that the scoring of the test was discriminatory. "The test administration was abominable," says Jen Cornell, secretary of the Minnesota Women's Firefighters Association, which helped train some of the St. Paul applicants. Once Coleman's promise of a new test was fulfilled in May, however, the suit was dropped.  

After the second test, only a quarter of the female applicants had passed, including Tossey and O'Connor. Ninety-four percent of the men were successful. This continued discrepancy led to a ruling by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in October that there was "probable cause" to believe the test was discriminatory toward women. The human-rights department took issue with the way applicants were ranked, noting that only 4 of the 21 women who passed both the physical and written tests were likely to be offered a job, because 349 of 598 male applicants were given a higher ranking.

In addition, the Department of Human Rights wondered publicly whether the city should consider adopting the Candidate Physical Ability Test. Developed by a task force that included the International Association of Firefighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the test is arguably more fair to women because it evaluates candidates on a pass/fail basis, rather than ranking them--a process that often gives male applicants an edge. According to the human-rights department, in a majority of municipalities where the alternative test has been implemented, more than 40 percent of the female applicants passed. The department's ruling has since been turned over to the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, which has recently begun negotiations with the city in hopes of finding a solution to the impasse.

But John Hamilton, St. Paul's director of human resources, cautions that raw numbers can be misleading in judging discrimination claims. "Just simply saying it looks like there may be some smoke doesn't mean there's fire," he says. "It's been the city's position that we administered a very fair test that has been validated by consultants that were hired for that express purpose, and that we think it is a valid, reliable predictor." Additionally, Hamilton has yet to see any compelling evidence to suggest that there would be any fewer discrimination claims if the department adopted the Candidate Physical Ability Test: "We've looked at that, and some people have endorsed it, but we have probably invested more time and energy and money in the validation of our current testing system."

Even if the city and the Attorney General's Office can reach an agreement, there is still the possibility that other women applicants who have already failed physical tests will take St. Paul to court. Attorney Greg Corwin represented the women who took the city to court in March and he still provides counsel to two of the twelve original plaintiffs. He says that, for now at least, his clients are going to wait to see what action the Attorney General's Office takes. "Why litigate if you can accomplish the same thing this way?" Corwin asks rhetorically. "Our feeling is, let the Attorney General's Office go after them. They've got the resources. They've got the expertise."

Last month Chief Fuller told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he is not ruling out any options, including conducting yet another physical test. "The only thing I'm willing to look at is that we have a good test that produces good firefighter candidates," he said.

City Pages attempted to contact Chief Fuller for a comment on five separate occasions. He did not respond. Other phone calls and faxed requests for an interview with an official from the St. Paul Fire Department also went unanswered.

 

The dreary gray drill tower is a six-story concrete structure directly behind the outfield fence at Midway Stadium, home to the St. Paul Saints. This is where new recruits to the St. Paul Fire Department receive their baptism in fire.

The 12-week academy is physically exhaustive. As often as ten times a day, novices must run up six flights of stairs saddled with fifty pounds of gear. Occasionally a 58-pound bundle of hose is added to the load.

At least three times a week recruits perform "The Circuit," an imposing labyrinth of exercises. Among other things, they must execute 20 rotations on a specially calibrated fire hydrant, take 75 hacks at a log with an ax, extend a ladder upward of 40 feet, and drag 175-pound dummies across the academy grounds--all while wearing their firefighting gear.

Recruits must also pass a series of skill tests designed to simulate on-the-job dilemmas. Along the east side of the drill tower, for example, there is a ten-foot overhang, angled at 45 degrees. A piece of plywood is secured to a four-by-four-foot hole in the middle, and trainees must chop through the wood in four minutes without losing their balance. The idea is to simulate chopping a pitched roof.  

At the firefighting academy in Minneapolis, and at many others across the nation, these types of skill tests are not timed. But according to a letter Chief Fuller sent to the department's 36 new recruits in early October, speed would make or break a candidacy in St. Paul. "You MUST satisfactorily pass all physical fitness performance standards by the END of the Academy, or you will be terminated from the Department," he wrote.

That Julie Tossey and Kathleen O'Connor even had a chance to pass these tests is a credit to John Colonna, a former deputy fire chief in St. Paul who served as interim fire chief from late 1989 to early 1991. He created the department's affirmative-action program in 1990.

Until the late Eighties the communications center had been the domain of injured firefighters. Those who were hurt on the job or were no longer able to perform their duties for some other reason would be placed on dispatch duty. When Colonna filled in as chief, the communications center was in the midst of hiring people specifically for the job of dispatcher. "We knew that we would be hiring people and that a number of them would be women," recalls Colonna, who retired at the end of May. Knowing that the department would eventually have to hire women firefighters, he arranged to have the dispatchers incorporated into Local 21. This automatically gave dispatchers first dibs on openings for other union jobs--namely firefighting positions. The incentive for dispatch workers to make the jump was a better pension plan, an increase in salary, and the opportunity to retire at the age of 55.

In 1994 the program produced results for the first time: Three male dispatchers moved from the communications center to the academy. When the next round of hiring began, in May 1999, seven more dispatch workers applied to become firefighters. Six of the applicants, including Tossey and O'Connor, were women.

Internal politics almost stopped Tossey and O'Connor before they even reached the training center, however. When they filed their applications to become firefighters the city was deciding whether, in the name of efficiency, to merge the department's communications center with that of the police department. When the St. Paul City Council originally voted to approve the merger on July 14, 1999, their resolution contained an explicit provision guaranteeing that the promotion rights of current dispatchers would not be affected. At the next week's city council meeting, however, the measure was stripped from the resolution.

Upon learning of the change, O'Connor, Tossey, and four other dispatchers cried foul. They wrote letters to the city council, Mayor Coleman, and city administrators protesting the move. In their eyes it was a backhanded way for the fire department and the union to deny them their promotions. "We were union members, we were paying union dues, and our union was fighting against us," an exasperated O'Connor says.

Human Resources director John Hamilton maintains that the only reason the provision was dropped is that it was redundant and that current personnel rules already protected the promotional rights of dispatchers. Still, the six dispatchers eventually managed to secure a letter from Mayor Coleman stating that the merger would not negatively affect their attempts to become firefighters.

After Tossey and O'Connor passed the second physical test, it became clear that they would be placed at the top of the list of new recruits. According to the minutes from a union meeting that took place on June 27, 2000, Local 21 membership voted 30-1 to oppose the granting of seniority to dispatchers over any current firefighters. In essence this would mean that dispatchers like Tossey and O'Connor would be treated like any other recruit when it came to job benefits, regardless of how many years they had already been employed by the fire department. Despite the union vote, it would have taken a move by the city to change policy. The dispatchers' seniority rights remained intact.

At this point Local 21 behaved as though they had been backed into a corner. "Two dispatchers received absolute preference which places them ahead of 142 firefighters," read the minutes from a union executive-board meeting that took place on June 27, 2000. "This is very unfair and we must decide what to do. There are three options: a. Go to court. This could be costly and although we may win the battle, we may lose the war of maintaining a decent entrance test because not many women passed. b. Fight the seniority issue and let training wash those out who are unable to perform necessary tasks. c. do nothing and let fire admin deal with it."  

 

As Tossey and O'Connor struggled to make it through their first few weeks of the firefighter academy, they became convinced the powers that be wanted to make sure that they were indeed "unable to perform necessary tasks."

On the first day of training camp, O'Connor says, she asked for a mentor to help her through the academy. Her request, which she maintains was reiterated time and again, was ignored. On the third day Tossey became sick during physical training. She stopped on the grass to vomit and then continued running. She was later called into the office and given a demerit slip for disobeying orders. Tossey claims that when a male recruit threw up he was simply sent home for the day.

Both women maintain that they were not given sufficient guidance and practice time or the proper equipment needed to master the skills required of them. At one point Ed Tossey felt compelled to call Chief Fuller himself and complain that his wife wasn't being allowed to practice a crucial chopping test.

O'Connor grew so discouraged that she was on the verge of quitting. She was plagued by self-doubt and couldn't sleep at night. The weekend before the first quarterly test, a battery of physical skills that had to be completed within seven minutes, she began to wonder if she was going to make it. "I was mentally a wreck," O'Connor says. After spending the weekend wrestling with the idea of quitting, she decided to stick it out: "In my head I was saying, 'There's nothing here I haven't done before. Nothing.'"

She showed up Monday and failed the quarterly test, as did Tossey and the other two female recruits. A week later all four retook the test. Tossey and O'Connor failed; the other two women passed. The two dispatchers were notified that their files were being sent downtown for review.

A week before Thanksgiving the next stumbling block came. O'Connor and Tossey, along with one other female and one male recruit, failed to complete a chopping test in the required two minutes. O'Connor and Tossey say they missed the cutoff by ten and thirty seconds respectively.

Two days before Thanksgiving, at about 9:30 a.m., they were given a second crack at the chopping test. O'Connor says she was sick, her nose congested and runny. But she knew that she was already on shaky ground and dared not miss a day of training. Again both of the women failed.

O'Connor and Tossey spent the rest of the day preparing for future tests. Then, just before quitting time, they were each called into separate offices and read their letters of dismissal.

Tossey accepted her fate silently, reacting with shock rather than anger. "I just couldn't believe it," she says now. "That was my goal for eight years, to be a firefighter. And I finally achieved that goal. And now they're telling me not that I can't do the job, but that they don't want me."

O'Connor says that she immediately questioned the decision. She pointed out that Chief Fuller's October letter required new recruits to pass all physical fitness performance standards by the end of the academy. The argument got her nowhere.

"There isn't anything here I can't do, and if I had until the end of academy to complete things, I know I could do it," O'Connor recalls saying. "I think that was their fear," she theorizes now. "I think they knew I could too."

John Colonna, who retired at the end of May, was beside himself. "I've been fighting to see women from the communications center get on for ten years," he fumes. "It took ten years for the damn thing to finally bear fruit and then they get kicked out unfairly when they're going through the firefighter academy."

Pat Smith is just one of many within the St. Paul Fire Department who take issue with characterizations such as Colonna's. The secretary of Local 21, he has been in the union leadership for 12 years and is the only one in a position to speak for the fire department or the union who would return calls.

Smith maintains that the union's only concern is safety, and he points out that the two other women in the department's academy graduated on January 5, 2001. He fears that the battle over physical tests for firefighters could lead to weaker standards that will endanger him, his co-workers, and the residents of St. Paul. "The fact of the matter is, there aren't that many women that can do this job," Smith says carefully, knowing that a hastily chosen word could come back to bite him in court. "The fact of the matter is, there aren't that many guys that can do this job either. Many guys fail the test. But it's a male-dominated field, and a very physically demanding field. So you need a physically capable employee. Are there women out there? There's plenty of women out there."  

The debate over how best to determine who is physically capable of becoming a firefighter has gone on for decades all across the country, but St. Paul is one of the few cities where the issue continues to fester. "It was certainly the issue of the Eighties and to a certain extent the Nineties," says Terese Floren, executive director of Women in the Fire Service, an education and advocacy organization based in Madison, Wisconsin. "St. Paul is one of the last to deal with it on a really litigious and polarized basis."

Pat Smith is weary of the whole protracted process. He hopes that all involved parties can reach a compromise without resorting to more court battles. "I've been doing this for 12 years," the union secretary sighs. "I don't want to have to go to my members and say, 'Hey, let's suck up another hundred bucks a piece because we're gonna go to court again.' That's not what we want to do. We want to settle this issue once and for all."

But Terese Floren guesses that a peaceful resolution is unlikely. "Once you've got the union here and management here and women firefighters here, once it's gotten so polarized, every single aspect of the test is going to be scrutinized," she warns. "It's very, very hard to sort out once people get indignant."

Smith is less willing to talk specifically about O'Connor and Tossey's ouster. Because he does not work directly with the training academy, he does not know why they were not given 12 full weeks to complete the tests, as Chief Fuller's letter stipulates. Nonetheless Smith has little doubt that the dispatchers were provided every opportunity to prove themselves: "They didn't have the strength, they didn't have the ability, they didn't have the whatever. It's not our fault. It's not the city's fault. It's not anybody's fault. I'm never gonna be a neurosurgeon. The fact is I don't have the aptitude, the training, or the education to be able to do that. And I'd like to be a professional ball player. I loved football when I was growing up. But somewhere along the lines, your limits are what they are."

 

Julie Tossey's home used to be decorated with various mementos of the firefighting trade: a Dalmatian statue emblazoned with the logo of the International Association of Firefighters; a fire helmet perched on top of the kitchen cupboard; plaques that Ed had received for his years of service hanging from the walls. But since being dismissed from the academy, she has purged the house of all reminders of firefighting. "I had to take it all down," she says. "I couldn't stand to look at it."

Both Tossey and O'Connor are on medical leave from their jobs as dispatchers. They've both sought psychological counseling and are struggling with depression. They feel that to return to their dispatch jobs now would be akin to giving up. They also fear the hostile climate they're sure they would be walking back into.

"It's been such a painful two years," O'Connor explains. "A lawsuit just kind of prolongs all the pain. I honestly don't expect to get any settlement out of this. I just don't want to see it happen to someone else."

The turbulence has turned the Tossey family's world upside down. For years their friends, the parties they attended, the vacations they planned, virtually all of it had some connection to the fire department. Now, Ed claims, many firefighters refer to Tossey and O'Connor as the "comm-center bitches."

"The fire department is like a family," Julie Tossey says. "And for over 11 years I was part of that family. And then all of a sudden they turned on me. All of a sudden you're not part of that family anymore."


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