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EEOC says physical test discriminates against women The Austin Fire Department has stopped the application process for its current cadet class. Acting Fire Chief Jim Evans cited complaints about the written and oral portions of the entry exam as well as a notice from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that the time limit for the physical portion of the test could unfairly discriminate against female applicants as the reason for the decision.

Tuesday, August 2, 2005 by

If the woman who complained to the EEOC files suit—and prevails—it could affect how firefighters are hired in Austin and numerous other cities.

“This was not a decision that we made overnight,” said the Chief. “It was a gut-wrenching decision for me personally.” No one single factor was behind the decision, Evans said, but instead he put the plans to start the next academy class in December on hold because of a combination of complaints and questions raised by the local firefighters’ union, individual applicants, and the federal government.

The ruling from the EEOC regarding the physical exam, the chief said, served as “the last straw. Going into an examination that is being contested by a federal agency, we knew that we would be opening up a great deal of liability for the department, the city, and the taxpayers of this city,” he said. “We all felt it would not be prudent to proceed at this time.”

Mike Martinez, president of the A ustin Association of Professional Firefighters (AAPFF) told In Fact Daily that he believes the complaint was filed by a woman who failed the physical test in 2000. He said that the city had been much more successful in terms of hiring women after the initial use of the test in 2000. The city and the union agreed to use of the test, known as Candidate Physical Activity Test (CPAT), in contract negotiations.

Applicants for this year’s cadet class had already been through the written exam and the oral interview, but had not yet been taken the CPAT. The CPAT, developed by a consortium of 10 cities including Austin, has been adopted by hundreds of fire departments across the country as the standard test that recruits must pass in order to be eligible for the firefighter academy. In Texas, departments in El Paso, San Antonio, Lubbock, and Round Rock, among others use it.

The test consists of eight activities designed to simulate a firefighter’s job activities. They include climbing stairs wearing heavy fire-fighting gear, dragging a fire hose, carrying heavy equipment, forcing open a door, and carrying an injured colleague or civilian to safety. For the Austin Fire Department, candidates must complete all eight assigned tasks within a period of 10 minutes and 20 seconds.

However, a disproportionate number of female applicants were having difficulty meeting that time limit. “Locally, the very first time we administered the exam (in 2000), we had seven out of eight women fail the CPAT. As time has gone on, because we have made efforts toward providing them instruction for a workout program, that percentage has improved dramatically. I think it’s about 50 percent now,” Evans said. “It’s not always the cutoff time that results in a failure.”

AAPFF attorney Craig Deats said professionals have evaluated the test used by the city and that the firefighters are confident that the skills tested are job-related. “But I don’t have any idea why the EEOC concluded otherwise. Maybe other experts told them something else.” He explained, “Any time physical strength is part of a job, a test to measure that may have a disparate impact on women as opposed to men. So the question is does the test simulate closely enough the skills needed to be a firefighter to justify the disparate impact it has on women? Experts have said ‘Yes it does.’ The EEOC looked at it and found differently.”

The chief seemed especially surprised by the EEOC’s letter outlining the agency’s concerns that the cut-off time was not legally sufficient, given the wide-spread use of the test. “That entry exam is being used throughout the nation. Hundreds of cities use that for the testing of their candidates. So that particular piece of this impacts a lot of cities across the nation, not just the Austin Fire Department,” he said. The EEOC is not instructing Austin to either raise or lower the time limit for completing the tasks, but will only tell the department to come up with a standard time that can be validated.

Deats described CPAT as “the favored test for major fire departments to test whether people have sufficient physical skills to meet the rigors of the job. So this looks to me to be sort of in the nature of a test case.”

The two other portions of the hiring process are also facing challenges. Union representatives complained that some of the questions on the written exam were subjective and not directly relevant to the duties of a firefighter. For the oral interview, candidates expressed concern that different review panelists would apply the department’s criteria differently when rating applicants.

The practice of having panelists of current firefighters and civilians review video of the approximately 1,800 candidates who took the oral portion of the exam grew out of a desire to have input from firefighters in the hiring process. But because of the large number of applicants, it was impossible to have the same panel members reviewing all those who took the oral exam.

Evans estimated that the department had spent between $400,000 and $500,000 on the recruiting and testing process for the next cadet class so far. Of an initial pool of more than 2,300 applicants, the department had intended to narrow that down to between 40 and 60 cadets. Evans said approximately 40 would be needed to make up for firefighters lost due to retirement or attrition, and said that he wanted to add approximately 20 firefighters to help maintain staffing levels when a new fire station opens in Spicewood Springs in 2006. “You can rest assured that our staffing levels will be maintained as per our policy,” the chief said, stressing that the department still planned to open the station on schedule. “Basically, what that means is we’ll be paying overtime to maintain our staffing levels when necessary.”

The AAPFF and the city are currently in contract negotiations, with the current contract set to expire September 30. The chief hopes to have a new hiring process in place as part of the next contract, but said that if no deal is reached by October 30 the department would then revert to state civil service rules for hiring.

South Congress plan wins commission approval

The Planning Commission this week approved the South Congress Combined Neighborhood Plan, setting out proposed zoning changes and desired uses on territory between Ben White Boulevard, South First Street, William Cannon Boulevard, and Interstate 35. The zoning categories recommended by the neighborhood planning team and endorsed by the commission would help bring a diversity of uses to South Congress while allowing more intense uses at some other high-traffic locations such as the intersection of IH-35 and Ben White.

"South Congress should become a more vibrant accessible, mixed-use corridor and a destination for nearby residents as well as the citizens of Austin," said Mark Walters with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, relaying the concerns of the residents who participated in the planning process. "Today, it has a variety of automobile-related uses including automotive repair, sales, and a very large auto salvage yard. It is also characterized by numerous pawn shops, numerous vacant or under-utilized lots, and many sections without sidewalks or curbs.”

He said the changes will make the area more inviting. “People want it to be walkable, a place where people can be and enjoy themselves walking up and down the street to the different shops and restaurants. They want it to reflect the scale of a person, not the automobile. They want it to be mixed-use. They want it to be more urban,” Walters said. “Currently, it has a feel of a more rural highway rather than a main street in the city of Austin."

While most of the provisions of the plan are designed to protect existing neighborhoods from commercial encroachment, the plan would allow some business development along South First. Specifically, Walters said, some office and mixed-use development would be permitted in the portion between Eberhart and Stassney now occupied by single family homes. "When these houses were constructed, South 1st was a narrow two-lane road," he explained. "Today, South First is a major arterial."

The plan also recognizes the changing nature of the IH-35 and Ben White intersection. The planning team recommended allowing more mixed-use and commercial projects with increased height limits along the east-bound frontage road to encourage projects similar to the Southfield Building. "One of the biggest changes being proposed would be to allow eight to ten story buildings along the Ben White frontage road between South Congress and I-35 and down South Congress to St. Elmo Road," Walters said.

The Commission allowed a few modifications to the document submitted by the neighborhood planning team. One was to increase the maximum buildling height on a specific lot near the I-35 and Ben White intersection from 60 feet to 90 feet. Another modification exempted a planned single-family affordable-housing development from new, stricter impervious cover limits, which could have forced major design changes for the project.

Much of the testimony on the plan was favorable. Agent Jim Bennett, who frequently represents property owners opposed the rezoning suggested under neighborhood plans, had praise for the participants and their willingness to strike a balance between the mixture of uses in the area immediately east of South Congress.

"The general consensus of the stakeholders involved was a desire to improve South Congress and to allow consideration for an equity situation, that there is commercial and industrial zoning as well as residential," he said. The plan, with four amendments by the Commission, passed on a vote of 7-0. It will go to the City Council for approval along with several re-zoning cases associated with the plan.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

AMD protests continue . . . Members of a coalition of environmental groups yesterday launched their billboard campaign against the relocation of Advanced Micro Devices’ to the Barton Springs watershed. About 15 demonstrators wearing masks of AMD’s CEO Hector Ruiz held a press conference to show off four new billboards, which read “Don’t trust AMD with Austin’s future.” Members of the coalition include the Save Our Springs Alliance, Clean Water Action and the Save Barton Creek Association. The coalition says more than 10,000 people have signed their petition to “move AMD” . . . Meetings. . . The city Zoning and Platting Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall. The agenda is fairly long, but most of the items appear routine and non-controversial. . . .The Bond Election Advisory Committee meets at 9am today in room 1101 at City Hall. The committee will hear several subcommittee reports and a staff presentation on the Needs Assessment Process.. . . The Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances Committee meets at 6pm in Room 2016 at City Hall. They will discuss a small lot amnesty option with the Neighborhood Plan Combining District. . . . National Night Out. . . Austin’s Eastsiders are planning to take a big bite out of crime (as well as a few hot dogs) tonight. The National Night Out Block Party is set for 6:30 to 8:30pm in the parking lot at Primera Iglesia Bautista, 112 Medina at the corner of East Second Street, two blocks east of I-35. Council Member Raul Alvarez will be the featured speaker. There will be information and training in how to report crime and safety issues using the 2005 Austin Police Resource Manual. There will also be booths with information about other resources in the neighborhood such as Walk Texas, after school programs and housing resources. . . The Neighborhood Association of Southwestern Williamson County and Town & Country Optimist Club present an Annual National Night Out event from 7 to 9pm tonight at the Town & Country Youth Sports Complex. Several Williamson County elected officials including Commissioner Lisa Birkman, Sheriff James Wilson and Justice of the Peace Dain Johnson will attend. Call Mack Sherrod at 512-258-6173 for more information. . . . Smoking ordinance meeting . . . The first of a series of informational meetings on the city’s new Smoking in Public Places Ordinance is set for 6:30pm in Room 104 at the Waller Creek Building, 625 East 10th St. The Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department has scheduled a series of community meetings for bar, restaurant and business owners and anyone interested in learning more about the new smoking ordinance that goes into effect on September 1. Other meetings are scheduled for August 9, 17, 23 at various locations in the city. For more information, go to http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/health/ or call Karina Moore at 972-5653. . . . Renewable Energy Bill signed . . . Governor Perry has signed SB 20, doubling the amount of clean, renewable energy to be produced in Texas. According to TexPIRG advocate Luke Metzger, the bill is “a victory for clean air and energy independence for Texas. The bill puts Texas’ homegrown resources and technological know-how to work cleaning up our air and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.” SB 20 mandates that Texas generate 5880 megawatts (enough to power 2.3 million homes) of renewable energy by the year 2015. The bill will give Texas the second largest renewable energy program (in total megawatts) in the nation.

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