New hires delayed, the Fire Department runs on overtime

At least 20 firefighters were injured in a Brooklyn blaze in early 2011, a year that saw a spike in firefighter burn injuries. AP Photo/Paul Martinka

An estimated 60,000 aspiring firefighters will take a test next week to join the New York Fire Department. But it could be at least a year before the exams are processed and longer still for successful applicants to complete a 22-week training program to join the Fire Department’s depleted ranks. Meanwhile, the department is set to spend $238 million this year — more than 13 percent of its budget — on overtime for its current workers.

“Our hands are tied until the new test is given and processed,” Fire Chief Edward Kilduff said Feb. 28 during a oversight hearing held by the City Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, where he offered the timetable for hiring.

The new round of entrance exams will be administered for five weeks starting on March 15. It will be the Fire Department’s first chance to take on new recruits since Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of Federal District Court in Brooklyn froze hiring in 2010, ruling that the department’s previous test discriminated against blacks and Latinos.

The Fire Department currently is more than 500 firefighters below appropriate staffing levels, according to Kilduff, and will be between 700 and 1,000 firefighters below 2001 levels by the time a new class starts work in 2013 or 2014. Last year, the Fire Department employed 10,787 uniformed firefighters.

“I’m concerned the department is too small, which would prevent it from being the preeminent response unit the city needs it to be,” Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley said during the hearing.

The department expects to hire 300 recruits based on the upcoming test, which is being drafted and administered by a court-appointed agent, PSI Exams Online.

The size of the applicant pool — double the number that usually sits for Fire Department entrance exams — and new court-ordered testing protocols “could potentially” extend the length of time it takes to process the tests, according to Julianne Cho, a spokeswoman for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the agency that recruits and hires city employees.

“We’re in new territory,” said Cho.

So far the staffing shortage hasn’t hurt the Fire Department’s job performance, according to Kilduff, but “we are asking firefighters to carry a little extra weight,” he told the committee. “At some point safety is an issue.”

Burn injuries to firefighters were up 45 percent in fiscal year 2011 from the previous year, according to the Mayor’s Management Report, while the number of serious structural fires increased 14 percent during the same period. (Overall, however, firefighter burns and injuries are on the decline.) Last year’s increase in burn injuries coincided with low staffing levels at the Fire Department and the shift to four, rather than five, firefighters assigned to each engine, according to Kat Thomson, director of operations research for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.

Overtime budgeting for uniformed firefighters has been increasing since fiscal year 2009, when the hiring freeze took effect, the Independent Budget Office reports.

Doug Turetsky, its chief of staff, notes that paying overtime is often less costly than hiring new workers. What’s harder to put a price tag on is the cost to the workers themselves as their paychecks grow – what he calls the “strain and drain” on firefighters. “The Fire Department is working with a smaller number than you’d want ideally staffed.”

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