The test of courage comes when we are in the minority; the test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority.

- 17th century theologian Ralph W. Sockman

TEST OF COURAGE: THE MAKING OF A FIREFIGHTER offers an insider's look at the trials and triumphs of a group of young men and women competing to become firefighters. Filmed over the course of three years in Oakland, California - one of the most culturally diverse cities in America - the program follows a cast of aspiring firefighters, men and women from different ethnic backgrounds, who are competing against 5,000 applicants for only 50 jobs. The program takes us inside the lives and close to the hearts of these applicants, showing us the grueling training and preparation they go through as the applicant pool gets continually narrowed down through elimination tests of physical agility, intellectual preparedness, and a subjective oral interview that goes a long way to determining if the candidate has "the right stuff" for the job.


TEST OF COURAGE takes place in a context of concern about ethnic and gender diversity in the workplace, both in the Oakland Fire Department and throughout the workplaces of America. In the America of today, the face of the workforce is rapidly changing. According to the National MultiCultural Institute, during the 1990's people of color, women and immigrants accounted for 85% of the net growth in the nation's labor force.

A theme often visible in TEST OF COURAGE is this issue of cultural and gender diversity. The film asks us to consider what role diversity does (and should) play in the selection of candidates, and what role diversity plays in the integration of new recruits into the ranks and culture of a fire department which prides itself on camaraderie, merit and courage. For the new generation of Oakland firefighters, we see how one of the most profound tests of their courage will come when the new ideals of diversity are tested in the daily reality of firehouse life and that moment of ultimate truth and trust when they have to put their lives in each others' hands.


While Oakland, CA was among the first fire departments in the nation to hire African American firefighters in the 1920's, by 1973 the city was being charged with discriminatory hiring practices against black candidates. In 1990 a Federal judge mandated the Oakland Fire Services Agency (OFSA) to increase its roster of minority and female firefighters. A number of separate lawsuits were filed in response, alleging reverse discrimination.

Although the consent decree was no longer in effect in 1996, when Oakland needed more firefighters the OFSA expanded recruitment outreach to women and minority candidates and sponsored preparatory courses for the written, physical and oral interviews.

In an unexpected twist, after OFSA issued its call Californians passed Proposition 209, ending race/gender-based hiring practices statewide. OFSA nevertheless remained determined to meet its diversity goals. However, the candidates were understandably confused about how race and gender would affect hiring decisions. Of the 491 professional firefighters working in Oakland today, 13% are women and 56% people of color.



Facilitator's Note:TEST OF COURAGE uses a real-world story to explore the complex issues of gender, race, affirmative action, cultural diversity, and workplace competition. We hope this guide will be used in classroom, community, corporate and police and fire house settings to facilitate understanding of the changing demographics of our country and to explore ways to include all Americans in a climate of fairness and prosperity. The following discussion questions can be used together with a screening of the program to facilitate a meaningful discussion of the many topics raised.

Before Viewing

Use these questions before showing TEST OF COURAGE to guide viewers to focus on key issues that will be addressed in the program, and to help them connect the subject matter with personal goals and experiences.

During Viewing

Pause the film after each section to ask questions about the complex topics in the film.


I remember the first day, coming into the drill tower, looking on the wall. All the pictures on the wall were white males. And that was how it was then but that s no different from, you know, America in general. But the important thing is that we show signs of change.

- Greg Bell

The Oakland Fire Department announces openings for fifty new recruits and is flooded with responses from over 5,000 applicants. The application process includes a written exam, a physical agility test, and an oral interview. The applicants put their heart and soul into each phase of the application process, hoping for success.


There is a lot of talk about valuing diversity. ...All that is positive stuff, however when we get to the fire line, I want people who know exactly what is expected and fall into lockstep.

- Captain Mark Hoffmann

The applicant pool has been narrowed down to twenty-eight students who enter the training academy. The firefighters-in- training learn to perform under pressure, meet the physical demands of the job, and work as a team, despite differences in gender, background, and interests.


I see people migrating towards others they re familiar with...I think the hurdle is to just walk out of your own comfortable group and mix, and get to know who other people are.

- Tina Moore

The rookie firefighters face the stresses and challenges of real life calls: medical emergencies, drive-by shootings, fires. They also learn how to cope with the hazing and practical joking that occur at every station house.

After Viewing

Ask these questions at the end of TEST OF COURAGE to encourage analysis and discussion:

Additional Questions for Group Discussions


It was affirmative action that got me into college. And we still live in a society that s not on an even playing field for women, for minorities...it s just not. But now I feel like I m on the other side of the coin, because I m not a woman.

-Terry Sanders

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy became the first President to use the phrase "affirmative action" when he issued Executive Order 10952. The order created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and directed contractors on projects financed with federal funds to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during their employment, without regard to race, creed, color or national origin."



To have students explore issues presented in TEST OF COURAGE in greater depth, you may want to assign one or more of these cross-curricular projects. Students may work individually or collectively.


One of the firefighters expresses his belief that affirmative action is a positive thing, when used the way it was intended. How was it intended to be used? How has it been used? Do some research into the history and practice of this controversial topic.


After viewing TEST OF COURAGE, you should have a good idea of how the Oakland Fire Department works. What about the firefighting organization in your community? Who are the people who fight the fires? Are the crews in your fire department representative of the surrounding community? Visit your local fire station and interview some firefighters. You might ask some of these questions.


Firefighting is one of the most dangerous and physically and emotionally demanding jobs in today's world, yet few firefighters choose to leave it for another type of work. What are its rewards? Why do so many people continue to dream of becoming firefighters? Do some research to find answers.



Building a House for Diversity: A Fable about a Giraffe & an Elephant Offers New Strategies for Today's Workforce by R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr. (Amacom, 1999)

Catching Fire: The Story of Firefighting by Gena K. Gorrell (Ages 9-12). (Tundra Books, 1999)

Diversity Consciousness: Opening Our Minds to People, Cultures and Opportunities by Richard D. Bucher (Prentice Hall, 1999)

Fighting Fire by Caroline Paul (St. Martins Press, 1998)

The Fire Inside: Firefighters Talk About Their Lives by Steve Delsohn (HarperCollins, 1996)

Many Faces, One Purpose: A Manager's Handbook on Women in Firerfighting Women in the Fire Service for United States Fire Administration. (http://www.usfa.fema.gov/usfapubs/)

Pathways to One America in the 21st Century: Promising Practices for Racial Reconciliation. One America: President's Initiative on Race. (www.whitehouse.gov/Initiatives/OneAmerica/america.html)

Race : How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession by Studs Terkel. (Anchor/Doubleday, 1993)

Race & Rhetoric: The True State of Race and Gender Relations in Corporate America by John P. Fernandez and Jules Davis (McGraw-Hill, 1998)

Real Heat: Gender and Race in the Urban Fire Service by Carol Chetkovich (Rutgers, 1997)

Voices of Diversity: Real People Talk About Problems and Solutions in a Workplace Where Everyone is Not Alike by Renee Blank and Sandra Slipp. (Amacom, 1994)


The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers' Struggle, about the first successful union for farmworkers and its charismatic leader. Paradigm Productions, 510/883-9814.

Livelyhood, a PBS series about the changing American workplace, hosted by Will Durst. The Working Group, 510/268-WORK.

Making Peace, people working neighbor-to-neighbor for positive community change. Films for the Humanities, 800/257-5126.

Struggles in Steel: A Story of African American Steelworkers, an examination of the 100-year struggle for equal rights in the mills. California Newsreel, 800/621-6196.


A comprehensive news and resource site for the fire professional.

A comprehensive news and informational focusing on the impact of diversity on the business world.

The Fire and EMS Information Network
The most complete collection of fire and EMS links on the web.


International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters
National membership organization which promotes interracial progress throughout the Fire Service, encourages the recruitment and advancement of black firefighters, and collects and evaluates data on discrimination and implements corrective action.

International Association of Fire Fighters
Union representing over 230,000 professional firefighters and EMS personnel.

National Association of Gender Diversity Training
Supports and promotes programs, publications and training to assist businesses and individuals in creating a workplace culture of understanding, respect and inclusiveness for all men and women.

National Association of Hispanic Firefighters
National membership organization of 20,000 Hispanic professional and volunteer firefighters.

National Fire Protection Association
An international membership organization founded in 1896 to provide education and advocacy on fire safety and protection.

National MultiCultural Institute
Provides training and consulting services, publications and videos about diversity.

Teaching Tolerance
A national education project dedicated to helping teachers foster equity, respect and understanding in the classroom and beyond. Teaching Tolerance, created by the Southern Poverty Law Center, provides classroom resources, activities, recommended reading, videos and Teaching Tolerancemagazine.

U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau
Statistics about and information for working women.

Women in the Fire Service, Inc.
A membership organization providing networking and advocacy for fire service women, and resources and information for the fire service as a whole. WIFS publishes information, holds conferences, and provides guidance towards the goal of a harmoniously diverse fire service.


TEST OF COURAGE: THE MAKING OF A FIREFIGHTER was produced by Kyung Sun Yu and Gary Mercer for The Working Group, in association with the Independent Television Service, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. ITVS was created by Congress to "increase the diversity of programs available to public television, and to serve underserved audiences, in particular minorities and children."

For more information about ITVS or to obtain additional copies of this guide, contact us at 51 Federal Street, First Floor, San Francisco CA 94107; tel (415) 356-8383; fax (415) 356-8391; itvs@itvs.org. Material from this guide is available on the ITVS website, www.itvs.org.

Very special thanks:

Mary Lugo

Straight Line Editorial Development, Inc.

Susi Walsh, ITVS Community Connections Project

Brenda Berkman, New York City Fire Department

George Burke, International Association of Fire Fighters

Carol Chetkovich, Harvard University

Richard Logan, International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters

Fred Simon, Center for Independent Documentary