Fire Service Testing in a Litigious Environment: A Case History

By Gebhart, Gary M.; Duffe, William C. et al. | Public Personnel Management, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Fire Service Testing in a Litigious Environment: A Case History


Gebhart, Gary M., Duffe, William C., McCurley, Roger A., Public Personnel Management


Since the mid-1970s, the city of St. Louis has encountered frequent litigation and court involvement surrounding the testing procedures used to evaluate candidates for promotion in the fire service. During this period, the city has expended a considerable amount of time, effort, and money to develop valid and defensible methods of testing. In light of this experience, we have decided to review the past history to see if any conclusions can be drawn that would be helpful to other organizations. This article contains a brief history of the city's fire service testing and litigation, and a description of the current testing model used by the city. It also addresses the use of various testing components and their impact on all candidates. Finally, some practical considerations are discussed.

In 1974, the percentage of African-American employees in the St. Louis Fire Department was quite low. Of approximately 1,000 uniformed personnel in the department, only 110 (11%) were black. Of the 180 persons in the rank of Fire Captain, only 4 (2%) were black. No black employee had held a position above the rank of Fire Captain in the history of the department. This was in a city with a more than 40% black population according to 1970 census figures. It was obvious that this staffing pattern was unacceptable. It was not, however, an easy problem to solve.

Griggs v. Duke Power(1) was only a few years old in 1974, and fair employment case law had still not clearly defined terms such as "adverse impact." Additionally, the federal court system was continually evolving its own standards for what constituted acceptable test validation. Criterion-related validity was still regarded as the norm by the psychological testing community, but problems such as bias in performance ratings and claims of "differential validity" forced the city of St. Louis, as well as many other jurisdictions, to consider other validation methods.

The use of content validity as a means of validating selection instruments was just beginning to be accepted by the testing community. Voluntary affirmative action programs were virtually unheard of at that time, and the strong civil service rules and regulations in effect in St. Louis made it difficult to consider relaxing requirements for strict rank-ordering of candidates on eligible lists based on test scores. There was also a strong reliance on traditional civil service testing procedures such as multiple-choice written tests. As recognition of the problems inherent in paper and pencil testing increased, it became apparent that changes in the city's civil service testing procedures were necessary. As a result, innovations such as fire scene simulations and the use of assessment center exercises evolved.

A dramatic increase in minority employment has occurred in the department since 1974. In 1994, approximately 280 (40%) of the 700 uniformed personnel in the department were black. In addition, 39 (32%) of 123 Fire Captains, 10 (50%) of 20 Battalion Fire Chiefs, and 3 (75%) of 4 Deputy Fire Chiefs were black. The most recent Census Bureau data (1990) reveals that the population of the city of St. Louis is 50.9% caucasian and 47.5% African American. Other minority groups, although growing presently, were not as widely representative in the community during the period in question.

There are several reasons for the dramatic shift in the fire department's minority representation. In part the increase was due to a consent decree for the entry-level firefighter position, in effect since the mid-1970s. The decree calls for hiring candidates on a 50% white and 50% black basis. The increase has also been due to a consent decree for the Fire Captain position, in effect from 1980 to 1983. This decree called for vacancies to be filled on the basis of one black candidate for each two white candidates being promoted. One additional reason for the increase, especially at the levels of Fire Captain and Battalion Fire Chief, is the dramatic change in civil service testing procedures in St. …

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