SIOUX FALLS, SD – Members of Local 814 and Sioux Falls Fire Rescue administrators are negotiating changes in annual fitness training for firefighters, though both sides insist it isn’t related to complaints that the testing was unfair to women or firefighters older than 40.
Among concerns voiced by some in the union earlier this year was that the four tasks making up the test don’t accurately represent what firefighters do at a fire scene. Nor, they added, would firefighters be asked to complete those tasks at a fire in the 8-minute, 42-second time frame mandated by the test.
While some of those tasks are being changed, Local 814 President Mike Gramlick and fire chief Jim Sideras insist the modifications aren’t related to the earlier complaints.
“If you ask for my objective opinion, it certainly isn’t,” Gramlick said. “It’s audacious to think you can set this up on one try and make it right. We all understand that and are making changes.”
Sideras said that of about 175 firefighters, all passed the test this year except for three who are injured and have’t taken it.
“These changes aren’t driven by the over-40 issue or the female issue,” Sideras said. “It’s simply trying to more accurately reflect tasks that our firefighters are expected to do.”
In its last contract, the union agreed to this physical fitness testing for current firefighters — something that hadn’t been required in at least 15 years in Sioux Falls. Administrators insist such testing protects the public, incorporates national trends, and fairly measures firefighter fitness for the job.
A key point in the ongoing negotiations is a task in which firefighters in full gear carry a fire hose up and down 12 flights of stairs. Now the union and administration are discussing a test in which firefighters would wear a weighted vest and would cover the equivalent of 12 flights on a StairMill.
There were concerns about firefighters in full gear and masks — and lugging a hose — falling on wet stairs as they maneuvered up and down the different floors, Sideras said.
“If someone does have problems. … they could be on the fourth floor, fall and be injured, and we’d have to get them down four floors,” he said. “Going to the StairMill will remedy that, and will allow for more consistency.”
The two sides also have discussed changing the task in which firefighters drag a 165-pound mannequin 50 feet. Gramlick injured his back and was out for seven months after training with a mannequin.
Initially, firefighters were required to lift the dummy completely off the ground and carry it. “If you’re in a house fire, the most dangerous part is not the flames. It’s the hot, smoking gases at the top of the room,” Gramlick said. “That’s why you have breathing apparatus and protective gear. The worst thing is to lift a person up into the hot, smoking gas.”
Dragging a victim provides the best chance of survival, he said. Because victims sometimes are pulled out of a fire on a sheet or blanket, it made sense to use webbing or a strap to pull a mannequin.
“We have had injuries with testing,” Gramlick said. “To do everything to minimize them, that will have a lot of good benefit.”
Ultimately, when the changes are agreed upon, the test will be about the same as testing done by firefighting candidates.
“Now we have two totally different tests for incumbent firefighters and for when someone tries to get on to the department,” Sideras said. “Someone could say, ‘I can pass this one but not that one. Which is the official test that says I can be a firefighter in Sioux Falls?’ ”
That question should be answered once changes are completed. Both Sideras and Gramlick expect that to happen by Jan. 1.