Chief Leader - December 28, 2010by FLORA FAIR
A bill introduced in the City Council Dec. 20 would increase the eligibility age from 29 to 36 for Firefighter candidates, a proposal its sponsor says was a direct response to the FDNY hiring freeze ordered by a Brooklyn Federal Court Judge in September. Councilman Peter F. Vallone, Jr. (D-Queens) sponsored the legislation with the support of Council Members Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn), James Oddo (R-Staten Island), and Elizabeth Crowley (D-Queens). Mr. Vallone said he made the decision after speaking with some candidates who passed the FDNY exam but could n't be hired due to an ongoing legal battle over discrimination at the Fire Department.
'Lives in Limbo'
"I work out with a few of the guys who were on the list who brought it to my attention," he said. "Their lives have been put in limbo."
One of the candidates he talked to was Rebecca Wax, a 29-year-old FDNY candidate who attended the City Council meeting to build support for the proposal. "We got positive responses from everybody," she said. "All the Council Members were very enthusiastic about it."
After passing the 2007 exam, Ms. Wax had to defer taking the physical because she became ill, but she assumed there would be a second class brought in. "Then that second class never happened. I passed my physical and medical requirement, my file was approved, I was ready to go, and then they haven't had a class since."
In September, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis ordered a hiring freeze for all FDNY candidates, after ruling that the last three FDNY exams all had a "disparate impact" on minority candidates. The city initially agreed to an interim hiring method until a new exam was created, but la ter decided the judge's five hiring options-which included priority hiring for black and Hispanic candidates-were nothing more than racial quotas.
Mr. Vallone called the judge's decision "horrendous," claiming it ripped a hole in the city's budget. Under a worst-case scenario for new hiring, FDNY officials estimate the staff shortage could cost them $120 million between now and September 2012.
To support their case for increasing the exam age, Mr. Vallone points out that the age limit to take the NYPD exam is already 35. Additionally, current rules state that military veterans can get a "pass" of up to six years based on the length of their service. This means some veterans currently can take the exam as late as 35 years old.
Though unions agree that the hiring freeze is a bad decision, some are concerned that this would create a greater challenge for retirement. All new Firefighters would be hired under Tier III benefits, which require employees to work a minimum of 23 years before reaching retirement eligibility.
"I'm against it," said Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy. "The administration is talking about raising the retirement age and the amount of time that Firefighters have to work to earn pensions, and raising the age for starting at the same time...It doesn't make sense."
Gives Late-Deciders a Shot
For Ms. Wax and many others, timing is the biggest issue when it comes to getting into the department. "A lot of people don't figure out they want to be firefighters until 25, 26," she said. "This comes after years and years and years of waiting. I was 25 when I took the test... I figured it out when I was 21, but I had just missed the test and had to wait 'til four years later to take the next one."
Mr. Vallone said that after speaking to Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, who approved of the measure, he decided to try to make it permanent for all future candidates and not just the current class. "It's a law that we believe we have the power to pass," he said.
Ms. Wax just wants a chance to accomplish what she's been working toward for nearly eight years. "The class the judge cancelled was supposed to go in Aug. 30, and my 29th birthday was Aug. 29. It was a very depressing birthday," she said.
FDNY officials declined to comment on the issue.