Of all the jobs in a standard fire department, a lieutenant’s is among the most difficult. When a fire truck approaches a blaze, the lieutenant decides how to tackle it—what windows to breach, which floors to prioritize, and how best to deploy the truck’s three or four firefighters against a shifting, inanimate enemy.
To see if they’re up to snuff, most departments administer a written test, typically multiple-choice, to prospective lieutenants. Candidates must score above a cut-off to be considered for the job, with higher scores increasing the odds of promotion. The exam, which covers a litany of topics from building construction to medical techniques, is designed to ensure that the people making life-and-death decisions know the bare minimum to make them well.
So firefighters in Seattle, Washington, were surprised when their department’s lieutenant exam focused almost as much on social justice as on firefighting.
The test, which has both written and oral components, is based on a list of texts assigned by the Seattle Department of Human Resources—including, as of this year, How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and Both Sides of the Fire Lane: Memoirs of a Transgender Firefighter by Bobbie Scopa, according to a copy of the exam bibliography obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
Along with A Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias and Fighting Fire, a memoir by a female firefighter, the books about race and gender span over 800 pages—a large fraction of the total study material.
“This stuff has nothing to do with firefighting,” said Wayne Johnson, a retired Seattle firefighter who helped write some of the city’s promotional tests. “It has everything to do with social engineering.”
The exam is part of a much larger effort to diversify a department that, as Seattle fire chief Harold Scoggins lamented last year, is “overwhelmingly” white men. Those efforts, critics say, have made the promotion process more about ideology and less about merit, politicizing a public service where competence can mean the difference between life and death.
In fact, in 2021, local officials including Scoggins commissioned a report on diversity in the fire service. One of its recommendations: avoid tests that “rely heavily on knowledge of firefighting.”
“[T]ests that focus on how well applicants know the system and the job tend to favor those who make up the overwhelming majority of the fire service workforce, white men,” the report says. “Questions that ask more about the candidate’s character and values, rather than knowing the ins and outs of the job, can be beneficial in advancing more women and people of color.”
Seattle appears to have taken that advice.
An upcoming test for fireboat engineers, who operate the pumps and nozzles used to douse coastal fires, will quiz candidates on Robin DiAngelo’s Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, according to the exam bibliography. The fire captains exam likewise assigns DiAngelo’s book—along with handouts on the “structural interplay between all oppressions”—while the exam for battalion chiefs assigns the 2021 report on fire service diversity.
Scoggins did not respond to a request for comment.
Seattle’s tests are an outlier. In most cities, even Democratic strongholds like Boston and New Haven, written fire exams test only tactical knowledge. But in Seattle, where Scoggins himself helped protesters seal off the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in the wake of George Floyd’s death, promotions hinge on mastering these ideological tomes.
Firefighters who sat for the 2021 lieutenant’s exam said How To Be an Antiracist was an integral part of it, while basics like fire behavior took a back seat. “If I had only read that one book, I would have done really well,” said Andy Pittman, a former member of the Seattle Fire Department. “What we should be studying—high rise fires, water supply—wasn’t emphasized as heavily.”
Pittman, who is Japanese as well as an Alaskan Native, said he scored well on the tactics portion of the exam conducted via video. But he hadn’t expected the written portion, which received the most weight, to be so slanted toward race and identity. While technically above the pass/fail cut-off, his overall score was low—tanked in part, he said, by the political questions. That put him near the bottom of the department’s promotion register, meaning he was all but certain to be passed over.
Beyond raising questions about competence, former department members say, the ideological screening has worsened a staffing crisis caused by the city’s vaccine mandate, which put nearly 80 firefighters—almost a tenth of the department—out of work. At a time when the city desperately needs first responders, the fire service has grown more hostile to the sort of people who typically join it: big, burly men whose politics tend to be to the right of the average Seattle bureaucrat.
“These woke tests are making it harder for the macho guys to get hired,” said Steve Collins, who, along with Pittman and other firefighters interviewed for this story, lost his job in October 2021 when he refused the COVID-19 vaccine. “They weed out people who are not politically aligned.”
The written tests are overseen by Seattle’s Public Safety Exams Administrator, Yoshiko Grace Matsui, who ensures that “civil service processes are equitable,” according to her LinkedIn page. She did not respond to a request for comment.
The emphasis on equity has even bled into physical evaluations. When women fail the Candidate Physical Assessment Test—a standardized fitness exam all recruits must pass—the department has been known to offer them an immediate do-over, said Josh Gibbs, a former member of the department’s special operations team. Men, on the other hand, must wait until the next testing cycle.
Instructors have also been barred from gauging recruits’ readiness with tests more difficult than the standard assessment, said Ann-Maree Tedaldi, the department’s former fitness coordinator, again due to equity concerns.
“I was personally told I could not do any physical fitness testing to see where people were at or help them improve,” Tedaldi said, “because the tests might be biased against certain populations.”
The result, she added, was a high rate of attrition among new recruits, who found that the city’s training program—one of the best in the state—was much more physically demanding than the basic fitness exam. That in turn perpetuated the department’s staffing shortfall, which has at times forced units to stop operating.
The blunder reflects what Collins says is the fundamental design flaw in the city’s social engineering schemes: “Mother Nature,” he quipped, “is not an equal opportunity employer.”
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