FDNY test altered to boost pass rate

NY Daily News - October 17, 2006

by JONATHAN LEMIRE

With far fewer people applying to become firefighters this year, the Fire Department yesterday announced a dramatic change to the physical portion of its entrance exam.

The new test will now be graded pass or fail instead of on a point system, potentially allowing more people to pass the test. But the change dismayed critics, who believe it will hurt minority-group applicants.

"We want to give everyone who wants to join the Fire Department a chance to do so," said Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, who was flanked by black firefighters at a lower Manhattan firehouse. "We believe we are taking the needed steps to make this department even greater."

In an effort to diversify a nearly all-white department, the FDNY has run a multimillion-dollar campaign to recruit people of color, and Scoppetta said yesterday that blacks, Latinos and Asians make up 31.2% of the applicant pool - up slightly from four years ago.

FDNY officials also have extended the filing deadline by three weeks to Nov. 3, noting that applications to join have fallen to about 12,000 - down from about 20,000 during a comparable period in 2002.

Some critics believe that will not stop the slide in applications.

"The difference from four years ago is the (new) $25,100 starting salary," said firefighters union President Steve Cassidy. "A drop in applications while the department devoted more resources to recruiting sounds like a failure to me."

For the physical portion of its exam, the FDNY will now use the Candidate Physical Ability Test, the standardized exam used in cities such as Los Angeles and Miami.

Candidates will have 10 minutes, 20 seconds to carry out eight tasks, including raising a ladder, carrying a dummy down stairs and breaching a ceiling, all while carrying a 50-pound vest.

Previously, applicants were given numeric scores on both the written and physical tests, and the combined score determined their place on the FDNY's waiting list.

"Traditionally, the physical portion of the exam is where we'd make up points that could be lost on the written exam," said Paul Washington, head of the Vulcan Society, which represents black firefighters. "We just want a change; we just want more black firefighters on the job."