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Former Park City Fire District employees say physical standards force out women firefighters

pcfd_training.jpg
Park City Fire District
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PCFD recruits in trainling to become firefighters.

Several former firefighters at the Park City Fire District say the district's strict physical standards are driving women away from careers in Park City.

The Park City Fire District currently has no women firefighters. 

According to a 2020 report from the National Fire Protection Association, only four percent of career firefighters in the United States are women. The volunteer ranks are higher, but not by much, with women making up 11 percent of those firefighters.

With so few women employed in the profession nationwide and none in Park City, former employees are questioning whether some of the district’s standards are forcing them out.

Shellene Vetterli comes from a firefighting family in Park City. She followed the example of her father and brother, who were both career local firefighters, and started as a volunteer with the ambulance service in 1993. The fire district took over ambulance operations in 1996, and Vetterli attended firefighter training school in 2000. She was a full-time paramedic firefighter with the PCFD before leaving in 2018. She then worked at the South Salt Lake Fire Department until her retirement one year later.

Vetterli says her reasons for leaving Park City were many, including an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint she filed against the district in 2015 alleging gender discrimination centering on the district’s promotion practices and light-duty work policy during her two pregnancies. After an investigation, the EEOC was unable to conclude there were violations and closed the case.

Vetterli says after leaving the district, she moved on with her life. But recently, several women have contacted her about their concerns, particularly with the current Task Performance Testing evaluation, also called the TPT. 

The district’s TPT was the brainchild of late Fire Chief Paul Hewitt and was implemented in 2014. The TPT is a strenuous physical test all district firefighters must pass every year. The test includes completing a ladder carry, pulling an empty fire hose, advancing with a full or “charged” fire hose, completing a stair climb while carrying a 50-pound hose pack, a crawl test, and a simulated victim rescue. All of those tasks must be completed in under four minutes and four seconds while wearing full firefighting gear.  

KPCW spoke with two other women who are former PCFD firefighters about their experiences. The women left the district within the last five years specifically because of the TPT and spoke under condition of anonymity because they are both currently employed at other fire districts.

Vetterli and the women say the TPT is unsustainable. They say it does test skills all firefighters must possess, but that the time limit disadvantages anyone with a smaller stature -- more often than not, that means women.

Vetterli says the TPT is not a realistic simulation of what firefighters would be required to do in a real-life situation.

“On the fire ground, what happens is all these tasks are divided so that they can happen simultaneously,” says Vetterli. “One firefighter in four minutes isn’t gonna go throw ladders, take a hydrant, pull a fast attack line, do a highrise attack and do a rescue. That’s just not how firefighting is done, but that’s how the test was designed.”

According to one of the women, if someone were to complete these tasks back-to-back at a real fire, they would be “useless to everyone else” afterward due to exhaustion. 

Completing a nationalized Candidate Physical Abilities Test, or CPAT, is standard for employment at many fire departments. The CPAT has similar tasks as the TPT, but has a time limit of 10 minutes and 20 seconds.

PCFD Chief Bob Zanetti responded to the concerns with a statement: 

“Park City Fire District has always held itself to the highest standards in terms of employment practices, and the qualifications and performance of its employees. The district’s personnel policies and management of those policies ensure that any unlawful discriminatory conduct or practices are prohibited. The district has always encouraged women to apply for and complete the necessary training to be employed by the district and will continue to do so.”

In regard to the district's physical requirements, Zanetti says the TPT was developed by outside experts and is based solely on the necessary skills required to be a firefighter. He added, “the ability to perform these tasks are critical both at the time of hiring, as well as at all times during the term of employment.” 

One of the women described what she called an “unspoken rule” at the district to not question the TPT and added that she firmly believes the test is the reason no women are currently at the district. The other compared the TPT to every type of player on a football team being held to the same physical standard as a running back, and then cutting everyone who doesn't meet that standard.

Vetterli and the women agree that all firefighters should be held to a high physical standard, and have completed the TPT in the past as a condition of their employment. However, they also believe a 25-year career is not possible for women in Park City with the current standards in place.

Vetterli says the numbers speak for themselves. 

“Yeah, they should be held up to a fitness standard, but the numbers tell the truth,” Vetterli says. “The numbers are zero women, and it’s not how it is anywhere in Utah. People hire women and they value women, so why is Park City the only department in this entire area with no women?”

Vetterli and the other women say they can think of many instances, especially on medical or domestic violence calls, when patients have specifically asked for a woman to treat them. She says the public would be better served with a more diverse fire district.

“I just want change,” she says. “I think Park City deserves diversity in its organization. These people come to their homes on the worst day of their lives, and they deserve a strong, diverse group that can solve these sorts of problems.”

The two women KPCW spoke with say they both brought up changing the TPT with their superiors while they were employed by the district, but their concerns were dismissed.