Question Its Relevance: Vulcans Join Fight Against Fire Test

Chief Leader - April 17, 2007

by RICHARD STEIER

The fraternal organization representing black firefighters has joined a group of white test-takers opposing the recent written exam for Firefighter, charging that the test was too subjective and failed to measure whether candidates could become capable Firefighters.

The stance taken by the FDNY Vulcan Society is potentially significant because the revised format for the test, known as Exam 6019, was designed to address U.S. Justice Department findings that the Fire Department's hiring methods had the effect of discriminating against minority candidates.

Concerted Effort

The department in conjunction with the Department of Citywide Administrative Services conducted a $1.5-million recruiting campaign beginning last fall, reduced its education requirement and agreed to have the physical test rated on a pass/fail basis in the hope of increasing the number of black and female Firefighters.

But the major changes in the types of questions asked, a section of the test in which candidates were supposed to rate responses in a spectrum ranging from "highly desirable" to "highly undesirable," and questions that asked candidates to imagine that they were senior firefighters have all provoked controversy.

A group of candidates known as Fighting 6019 has threatened to sue to have the test overturned. Its leader, Dominick DeRubbio, said April 11 that he had enlisted the support of other FDNY fraternal groups, including those representing Irish, German and Jewish firefighters.

Two other ethnic groups with significant contingents in the FDNY, the Columbian and Hispanic Societies, did not respond to his request to join the group's cause, said Mr. DeRubbio, a fire science major in his junior year at John Jay College. Vulcan Society President John Coombs explained his decision to join with Fighting 6019 this way: "They're only raising the point we did, which is that this exam does not measure whether someone will be a good Firefighter, whether he or she can learn, whether he or she can follow directions."

Based on accounts he has received from those who took the test, Mr. Coombs said, he believed it "was poorly written. It just didn't make any sense. At the last minute things were added that candidates hadn't been told to study for."

'DCAS Got It Wrong'

He also took issue with the use of a spectrum of descriptions serving as answers, a significant change from past multiple-choice tests in which one answer was designed to be clearly superior to the other choices candidates were given. About 45 percent of the questions on this exam had more than one correct answer; usually multiple right answers occur only when candidates successfully challenge the answer that's been designated by DCAS. The protest period is still ongoing.

"Answers should be 'a,' 'b' or 'c,' not 'maybe,' Mr. Coombs contended. "This time around, DCAS got it wrong."

DCAS spokesman Mark Daly responded, "The recent firefighter test was developed with input from hundreds of working firefighters so that it would fairly assess candidates based on the fundamental attributes of a successful firefighter - abilities such as visualization, facility with numbers, and also reasoning and judgment.

"The multiple-answer format on sections of the test is part of the test design. As the proposed answer key shows, there are wrong answers to these questions, and, as in many aspects of a firefighter's job, there can be more than one right way to approach a situation."

FDNY Chief of Department Salvatore Cassano said in a statement, "Fire Department members participated in the preparation of this test and we are confident it is job-related and will produce outstanding recruits for Probationary Fire School."

Mr. DeRubbio contended, however, that the test deviated from the objectivity that is a hallmark of traditional civil service exams, and asked candidates to assume experiences none of them have had.

'Can't Study for It'

"The questions were putting you in the senior officer's position and asking you to respond," he said. "A lot of the questions were a matter of opinion; it's not something you can study for."

In addition to seeking support from FDNY fraternal groups, Fighting 6019 has attempted to enlist the fire unions, particularly the Uniformed Firefighters' Association. The unions would be valuable allies, particularly in helping to cover the costs of any lawsuit the group might file.

UFA President Stephen J. Cassidy has been preoccupied for the past six weeks with lining up his rank and file's support for a new wage contract that will shortly be put to a ratification vote. Mr. DeRubbio clearly was frustrated, however, by the lack of a union response.

"We need the unions to back us," he said. "Until we get their support, it's really going to be an uphill battle. Where have [they] been?"

A spokesman for Mr. Cassidy, Eldin Villafane, responded, "The UFA has objections to the entire testing process on the basis that the physical is not being competitively marked, and we're awaiting the outcome of the [candidate] protests of the written part of the test before we respond directly to that part."