Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Test of Courage



Broadcast Schedule


Facilitator's Guide
PDF version  |  Printer friendly version

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

Facilitator's Guide


Discussion Questions

* Classroom Activities

* Resources

* Credits and Thanks


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.

  • As of 2000, women make up 47% of the U.S. labor force. Approximately 5,200 women work as full-time career firefighters and officers, representing just over 2% of the total.

  • In 1998, there were 27,000 African-American and 9,000 Hispanic career firefighters, representing 11.8% and 3.9% of the total respectively.

  • African American women comprise about 10% of female career firefighters and officers. Detroit now has more than 20 African-American women firefighters, including District Chief Charlene Graham, who was promoted in 1996. The District of Columbia Fire Department, which has been one of the nation's leaders in hiring Black women, employs more than fifty as firefighters and an even larger number in EMS. The Oakland Fire Department currently employs more than 15 Black women out of a total force of 491.

  • In New York City, fewer than 6% of FDNY's 11,000 firefighters are men of color and women are .3% (3/10's of 1%) of the total. NYC's overall population is 30% Hispanic, 25-30% African American, 10% Asian and 51% women.

  • The following urban fire departments (more than 75 career personnel) have the highest percentages of women firefighters: Madison, Wisconsin: 14.8%; Boulder, Colorado: 14%; Clay County, Florida: 13.8%; San Francisco: 11.7%; Montgomery Co., Maryland: 10.2%. However, several large urban departments have no women at all.

  • The White House estimates that by 2050, the population of the United States will be approximately 53% White, 25% Hispanic, 14% Black, 8% Asian/Pacific Islander and 1% American Indian. (Sources: Oakland Fire Services Agency, Women in the Fire Service, National Fire Protection Association, National MultiCultural Institute and President's Initiative on Race)

Home | Story | Life of a Firefighter | Diversity | Filmmakers | Talkback | Resources | ITVS