Exams blamed for lack of bilingual firefighters

The Fire Department gives out premium pay to firefighters who speak Cantonese or Spanish, but it appears at first glance that not many are taking advantage of it. Of the 30 Spanish positions, only 13 are filled. There are a total of 24 Cantonese bilingual spots, but only one is filled.

San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White told the Fire Commission recently that the last bilingual exam did not prove to be a good fit for the Department. There are more than 14 firefighters that speak good conversational Cantonese or Spanish, and in some cases were considered bilingual.

But the tests are so difficult that not many are passing.

The Department’s primary goal for the members is not necessary perfect grammar or writing, Hayes-White said.  It is the utilization of the language during medical responses to obtain critical information about a patient’s medical history, medications, and any other pieces that might help with treatment of the patient.

Hayes-White expressed confidence that there are a number of members in the Department that would be able to pass an exam that was more conversation-based and included some medical terminology as well.

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