Fire Recruitment Process Rekindles Debate

by Melissa Bailey | April 5, 2007 10:30 PM

The latest round of oral tests for entry-level firefighters, which drastically cut down the applicant pool, has reignited a debate over the city's effort to eliminate patronage from the hiring process and create racial balance on the force.

The city fire department's currently recruitingfor 26 vacant entry-level positions. Through a revised testing process the city's trying out for the first time this year, an outpouring of over 1,300 candidates was whittled down to 226 last week as the results of oral exams were mailed out. The new process emerges in the wake of a court case that struck down the city's old pass/fail method, which accommodated patronage by allowing top brass to pick and choose from a large pool of undifferentiated applicants.

The city's new ranked test, which it touts as a non-discriminatory improvement on past practices, has drawn heat, including from Fire Union President Patrick Egan (pictured above at right), who says all the people he knows failed the test.

Underlying a battery of recent complaints -- on how the test was weighted, the high failure rate, suspected inconsistencies in the process -- lies a history of debate over how to encourage minority applicants, standardize the process, and end patronage.

The Whittling

Of an impressive1,300-plus original aspiring firefighters who entered the civil service process, a total 832 passed the written test and were called back for an oral exam on March 5 before a panel of interviewers.

IMG_7334.JPGResults from the orals were sent out last week: Of the 770 who took the test, only 226 passed, according to Assistant Fire Chief Ron Dumas (pictured), who learned the figures from human resources.

Egan said the 71 percent failure rate "smells bad." He said he's been getting calls left and right from people who failed the test. "I don't know anyone who passed."

Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts said the test was "intentionally rigorous." The city knew it had to whittle down a large list to fill only 26 vacancies (at a maximum), so it designed a test accordingly.

Besides the high failure rate, "what's really throwing people for a loop," said Egan, is how the test was weighted.

The testing process changed after a Naugatuck man filed a lawsuit claiming the pass/fail exam -- which enabled police brass to choose from a wide pool of successful candidates, enabling nepotism -- violated the city charter. The result: A judge ruled the final list must be ranked, and candidates chosen from that list.

Egan knew the list would be ranked. Applications stated the rank would be based on an applicant's "final score" after taking the agility, written and oral tests. Egan interpreted "final score" to mean a combination of the written and oral components. So did "everyone else I talk to," he said.

To Egan's surprise, the city has produced a ranked list based solely on the oral component (with points addedfor being a city resident or veteran).

The computation drew scrutiny at a reportedly contentious Board of Fire Commissioners meeting earlier this week. "The commissioners wanted explanation of the process as it relates to weights and scoring," reported Dumas, the assistant chief.

Hill Alderman Jorge Perez agreed with Egan that "public perception" was that the ranking would be computed by a combination of the scores. "If you don't believe me, let's have a public hearing."

The city doesn't see it that way.

IMG_7327.JPGSmuts (pictured at left, with Perez) said the city followed standard practice: An "overwhelming majority" of fire departments that aren't allowed to do pass/fails base the ranked lists 100 percent on oral exams, he claimed (with points added for being a city resident or veteran).

At the heart of the debate: The value of the oral test as a tool to building a diverse, but qualified force.

Oral Exams: Two Views

While the recent police recruitment drive combined both the written and oral scores into the "final score," the fire department is different, said Smuts. "A police officer has to do a lot of written reports as part of their job."

"Oral tests are the best way of testing the qualities that we want to identify in our recruits, regardless of extraneous factors, like their ability to construct an essay, or their level of education."

In the past, critics have charged that written tests favored well-connected, white applicants who had access to study groups and could seek advice from friends on the force.

"The union and the administration have different opinions on the merits of oral tests," Smuts said.

Egan argued oral exams add subjectivity. "The whole point of civil service is to take out the subjectivity, take out the politics in the hiring process."

Tom Ude, City Hall's top lawyer, dismissed this charge. "I'm not sure what he means by 'subjective.' There are points that are expected to be made, and answer keys that are given to the graders-- that's what it's based on, not subjective impressions based on the people taking the exam." Ude said the oral exam "gives people who express themselves differently the chance to express themselves in their own words."

Unfortunately for the union, entry-level tests aren't bargainable. Union members must accept the city's testing process, or bring the whole matter back to court.

Meanwhile, Perez has his eye on a few suspected inconsistencies in the process. He and Egan argue the orals should've been tape-recorded to enforce fairness and enable review. Perez said he's considering calling for an aldermanic review of the process: "The appearance of incompetence has landed us into trouble in the past."


Posted by: Evan | April 6, 2007 12:17 AM
Apparently Egan and Perez's friends didn't make the cut.

Posted by: Patrick Egan | April 6, 2007 10:58 AM
I know many people who took the exam, although many failed there are some "friends" who did make the cut and I assume they are probably going to rank high enough to get on the job, but that's not the point.
The issue here is that the City gave an exam that was going to use a combined score of the written and the oral to rank people on the list, just like they did for the PD. That has now been changed midway through the process to everbody's surprise.
As far as the comments from our new CAO, Mr. Smuts, that the oral test is the best way of testing qualities that we want to identify in our recruits I would like to know what qualities he believes the oral test is going to measure. Also, after hearing some of the questions that were asked I would not classify the oral as even close to rigorous, which makes me wonder how so many people failed it. It concerns me that Mr. Smuts apparently has no knowledge of our job. Yes, police offers do write reports as part of their job.......and so do firefighters. As a matter of fact an individual firefighter is more likely to write more reports on any given shift than a police officer. Fire reports, medical reports, etc.
In closing, the fire union has no intention of litigating an entry level test issue, that is a decision for the test takers. It is just unfortunate that, once again, there's something done that creates a problem. That you may have people hired off this list who for so many years will have to wait and see if they keep their jobs due to the possible litigation that will come out of another civil service exam. When will it end.

Posted by: | April 6, 2007 3:13 PM
From what I have been told by numerous people is that 80% of the passing applicants are minority applicants.

Posted by: watchdog | April 6, 2007 3:38 PM
I heard the opposite from city hall insiders. Most of the people who past are non-minority applicants and they are getting ready to try to deal with that one next.

Posted by: KAM B | April 6, 2007 10:22 PM
Everyone wants to cry out RACISM everytime more whites get higher test scores than minorities. It's getting ridiculous. The city should stop catering to these bogus activist groups. You take a test, you're scored, and if you score high enough you get the job. If things were done like this there would not be any problem.

Posted by: Jillian | April 6, 2007 10:38 PM
I think that New Haven's testing process is certainly fishy. It is very disheartening to see so many hard working, intelligent young men who have dreams of becoming a firefighter, get flushed down the toilet by bureaucratic red tape. The "agenda" of the fire department needs to stop. Any human being who wants to go out for this job should be able to do so. There should be no penalty for being a non-minority, non-female candidate. It just isn't right. The city should know they are losing out on some great potential firefighters because of their delusion that they need to add a certain dynamic to their department. When firefighters respond to an emergency they are suited up and ready for duty. It does not matter what the skin type or sex of the individual is behind the uniform. Give everyone their rightful opportunity to make a difference and stop penalizing certain candidates.

Posted by: Efrain Escobar | April 7, 2007 11:54 AM
Can anyone tell me how the oral exam was actually scored? Why did so many people fail?

Posted by: concerned jake | April 8, 2007 10:25 AM
How sad, city hall thinks firefighters don't need writing skills.
Once again the citys plays thier dirty little games, thumbs thier nose at Judge Blue and makes up thier own rules to protect thier long standing tradition of patronage on the backs of New Haven taxpayers all the while cloaking thier crimes under the umbrella of diversity and screwing hard working firefighters both black and white alike.
Have we forgotten the hoops Burget and Ude jumped through to scuttle two very valid promotional exams, pitting Black Firefighters againts White, making a very public spectacle of promtional exams to the the taxpayers all worked up. Funny, one expert the city used was a hired gun, a firm known as CWH consultants.
These are the same shoemakers that since putting forth misinformation to the CSB while the city worked so hard to scuttle the Lieutenant and Captain exams have received no less than five contracts from city hall for testing. Like its said if the tail of the fish smells so does the head.
How about Burget and Ude. How many millions has the city shelled out in the past five years for civil service blunders, political pandering and the like. This is a travisty. Ude should turn in his law degree before it is revoked and the city should start listening to some of its well paid consultants, like the ones who said he should be immediately replaced.
Burget repeatedly disregards the advice and wishes of knowledgeable departments heads and makes a mess of the testing processes in place. Where did they dig this one up?

Posted by: eli | April 9, 2007 8:28 AM
when your house is on fire and your children, belongings and dog are inside, who do you want racing in - someone who is mentally and physically ready to do the job, or someone who was given extra points, and other considerations to be in that position. these are firemen, not postmen, lives are at stake. you hire the best, and only the best.

Posted by: cedarhillresident| April 10, 2007 6:57 PM
Thank YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: Chris | April 11, 2007 8:38 AM
What the City really needs are firemen that are trained as Paramedics to handle the majority of calls for service that are not fire related. One crew for the city is deplorable. As far as I can see the fire department is a Union Dinosaur.

Posted by: concerned jake | April 11, 2007 10:41 AM
Chris, do your research beofre you comment. The fire department provides ALS paramedic Service with 2 paramedic units.
The cities politically correct hiring practices do not give previously trained paramedics preference on entrance exams and it costs the city 25K to send a firefighter to school for this training, so they have not sent anyone in years. The fire department could not expand thier service if they wanted to.
Furthermore, Every Engine and Squad company is equipped as a first responder, this is advanced first aid and they also carry defribrilators which is what is really gonna save you, not a Paramedic, early defib is the key to survival.
Also, the fire department is suplemented by american medical response paramedics, who ultimately transport the sick and injured.
In fact, you have one of the best functioning systems in the state right now.
If you want your system improved you ought to start asking why the city insists on giving residency points but know points to trainined paramedics to defray the cost from taxpayers. The practice of giving these dumbed down exmas is doing nothing but endangering the public.
The dumbing-down of exams also will help ensure that even among those who may want to go to Paramedic school, if the city decides to send them, they may not have the academic wherewithall to pass the rigorous training.
So we have come full circle, haven't we Cedar Hill?

Posted by: cedarhillresident| April 11, 2007 3:25 PM
My thoughts are simple...First I want "the best of the best of the best" but if I can find the best in New Haven then yes they should be at the top of the highering list. I think that there are quite at few NHFD people that do live in New Haven and are very qualified and yes part of the training is basic first response aid. I do think we have one of the best FD. I personally am pround of our Fire Dept. But the five points is needed to encourage New Haven people to go out for it. and Five points does not really make a whole world of difference in the end they higher who they want.

Posted by: Just B. Fair | April 11, 2007 8:21 PM
I think the one thing people are missing is that the Fire Department itself is not to blame for the testing problems and outcomes. They merely have to train whoever is hired. The problems lies with a having an administration & HR Dept. that would be willing to finally give and accept the results of a FAIR and VALID testing process. The tests don't need to be hard--tenth grade level is around the norm I beleive. Unfortunately, the City's Administrators (the same one's who have cost the taxpayers well over 5 million dollars already from other poor judgements) must not have true confidence in how their particular candidates will do--unfortunate. But to base the Firefighters job on an Oral Exam only is potentially hindering. The job does entail plenty of report writing--LEGAL DOCUMENTS (shows how much the city knows about the Firefighters Job Requirements), Math for Pump Hydraulics, Memory recall for remembering where you are going to and what you saw when you arrived for Fire Investigation and Police Matters, just to name a few. By going this route of testing the city seems to have attempted to say that firemen need not be smart, just be able to speak.
Oral Exams are not extremely hard, they are only nerve racking. Anyone with the right coaching should have been able to pass this test with the questions the candidates were asked. I hope someday they will get their act together.

Posted by: smartspanishguy | April 12, 2007 11:23 AM
Seems to me that those who have been historically oppressed and denied opportunity in New Haven have finally found a way to get back at those they feel wronged them and have in the process hurt many good candidates' chances at becoming a part of the Fire Dept. I will be checking the newspapers and media to see if those that got the job over me really deserved it. My guess is that answer is probably NO.

Posted by: Patrick Egan | April 12, 2007 12:12 PM
Your sight appears to be limited. To blame the union for mis-management is ignorant. One point that should be clarified is that we have 2 paramedic units. The second point that needs to be made is that the union has pushed the City to train firefighters as paramedics and to hire paramedis. Unfortunately HR has refused to act on this. Therefore I take strong exception to your comment the the FD is a union dinosaur. There may be a dinosaur in the room but it is not the union.

Posted by: Badmer | April 13, 2007 3:57 PM
Looks like the Cities attempt to hire more New Haven residents by giving them 5 extra points back- fired on them. Their initial bad idea didn't work, so to remain consistant, they hatch another bad idea and completely disregard certain portions of the exam.
I don't know which is worst; That Tina, Noelia, Tom and Smuts can actually be so absurdly incompetent or that they are purposly trying to secure endless arguments that can be used for years to come whenever the political climate calls for it at the expense of a few bad hires.
I'm afriad the answer is the latter, as is evident by that last promotional exam. These people have been botching up exams for years yet none of them have ever been held accountable for the millions of dollars they have cost New Haven tax payers. All of the people who took that last promotional exam were hired from off of a PASS/FAIL list meaning that whoever scored highest on that entry exam could very well have been passed up for a person who scored the lowest. But let's just say that the highest scoring candidate was hired along with the lowest scoring candidate and now these two individuals test for a promotion, is there any logical reason why the results should come out far from being the same as when they tested to get on the job? No! The same disparate impact you had when you hired the firefighters is going to be there when they test for promotions.
Rest assured that when this is all said and done, they will manage to get their way with this 5 point thing and then act as if they had no clue promotional exams would yield a disparate impact as a result of this. Minorities will in turn ralley around Destefano bacause he in his right conscience could not allow for those promotions to go through. Division within the department will once again be inflamed and Tina, Noelia, Tom and Smuts will be laughing at us, all while giving themselves high fives.
I am a Hispanic who grew up in Fair Haven my whole life. If we as minorities continue to be satisfied with the scraps these politicians feed us, this history lesson will inevitably repeat itself. If we demand fairness and equality accross the board and we hold our elected officials accountible, it might take some time but in the long run I have no doubt that Hispanics and African Americans can compete with the brightest of minds out there. Learn to compete and win. If the best this current administration can do is 5 points on a dumbed down civil service exam, we need to wisen up and find leaders who can do better. As for the people that still subscribe to that theory of something for nothing, you should all be ashamed of yourselves.

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