Fire commissioners said they thought they had to start over to defend the integrity of the procedure. They agreed to re-interview all 120 candidates on the hiring list last spring and rate their performance on a scale of 1 to 10, weighing each candidate's articulateness, courage, confidence, preparation, ability to take orders, desire for the position, education, work history and availability to start work.
Fire Commission Chairman Dick Lyons said the interview would be the most important factor.
A year later, an analysis by The Advocate found no correlation between applicants' interviews and test scores and job offers.
Although the commission hired mostly men who scored in the top 50 percent on the interview, a high interview score -- or high marks on the interview and the written test -- did not necessarily lead to a job offer.
For example, a candidate who scored a 5.2 out of 10 on the interview and a 56 out of a possible 93 on the written test was hired even though two dozen applicants scored higher on the test and the interview.
The Advocate averaged the three commissioners' interview scores for each applicant in its analysis to form a single interview score. The newspaper did its own comparison of scores using information obtained from Human Resources and the Fire Commission because there is no central list that compares candidates' test and interview performance.
The Advocate obtained the interview scores through a Freedom of Information request. The Fire Commission initially denied the newspaper's request but was forced to release them by the state Freedom of Information Commission.
The Fire Commission gave applicants their interview scores upon request but did not tell them how they fared against the competition.
The starting salary for an entry-level firefighter is $40,537 a year and rises to $62,153 after five years.
Of the 15 candidates offered jobs in the past year, 13 live in Stamford and received a five-point residency bonus that was added to their written test scores. The two nonresidents were among the top 10 performers on the interview.
The last three candidates the commission selected had mediocre scores on the interview, with 4.5 to 4.7 out of 10. More than 40 applicants scored higher than Michael McGrath -- son of Fire Chief Robert McGrath -- Matthew Haine and Brian Teitelbaum on the interview. Teitelbaum attended the Jan. 23 meeting during which they were appointed and spoke with Lyons during a break, but did not address the commission.
Michael McGrath later declined the job offer.
Stamford officials say no formula determines who is picked for paid firefighting positions with Stamford Fire & Rescue because fire commissioners consider each applicant's resume, related experience and character.
With all of the high-rise buildings going up in the city and more planned, Fire Commissioner Marilyn Dussault said she is looking for candidates with rappelling experience. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she said she favors candidates who have worked with hazardous materials.
If it were simply a numbers game, Dussault said there would be no need for the commission, and the city's Human Resources Department could hire straight off the hiring list in order of how they scored on the exam.
"The test score is just one facet as I understand it," she said.
Director of Human Resources Dennis Murphy said the Fire Commission is not required to distinguish between applicants based on test scores.
Under the city's classified service rules, the Fire Commission may hire anyone whose exam scores made the top three ranks. That means any of the 120 applicants who scored 54 or higher on the test -- including bonus points for residency and military service -- are eligible to be hired.
Of the 15 applicants selected by the commission, four came from the first rank, meaning they had the highest scores on the written exam; seven, including Mayor Dannel Malloy's nephew, Brien Malloy, were from the second or middle rank; and four, including Michael McGrath, came from the third or bottom rank.
"By our rules, I am required to certify the top three (ranks), which means the top three are equally qualified to do the job," Murphy said. "And that's for every position, not just firefighters."
It's up to the manager doing the hiring -- in this case the Fire Commission -- to choose the best applicant, Murphy said.
Commissioners are volunteers appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Board of Representatives.
Under the city Charter, the Fire Commission has the sole authority to appoint entry-level firefighters.
There's no value in drawing distinctions between written test scores because those in the same rank are no more likely statistically to be a better firefighter, Murphy said.
In other fire departments in the region, the test score carries more weight.
The Norwalk Fire Department, for example, interviewed only the 50 highest scorers on its last exam. Applicants' test and interview scores each count for 50 percent of a single score that determines their placement on the hiring list. Norwalk residents get a five-point bonus. Applicants are hired in the order they appear on the list, Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy said.
"We are very candid with the candidates and let them know if they have an opportunity for a tentative job offer," McCarthy said.
The Norwalk department wants the top performers to know they are next in line so they won't take a job elsewhere, he said.
"If they are at the top of our list, they are probably at the top of somebody else's list as well," McCarthy said.
The system gives Norwalk's Board of Fire Commissioners little choice, but it wasn't always that way.
Norwalk took the decision-making power away from its Board of Fire Commissioners eight or nine years ago, said Norwalk Fire Department Deputy Chief Stephen Shay, who oversees hiring.
"You really can't do it the old-fashioned way with the mayor or the fire commissioners choosing, because even if it's fair, the guy down the street doesn't know that, and that's how rumors start," he said.
The new system has resulted in fewer lawsuits, Shay said.
"The last three tests were not challenged in court, and before that, every single test was challenged in court," he said.
The New York City Fire Department ranks firefighter applicants based on their written exam scores and calls applicants for a pass-fail physical test based on their performance on the written test.
"Those who score highest on the written are called first," FDNY spokesman Tony Sclafani said. "Then we go down the list -- the higher you are ranked, the quicker you are called."
Dussault, one of the three fire commissioners in Stamford who made the most recent hiring decisions, said she would be wary of a system that puts too much emphasis on test scores because a written test does not measure courage.
"Hiring someone to walk into a place everybody else is running away from takes a lot more than a written test," she said.
Stamford Fire & Rescue Assistant Chief Peter Brown agreed, saying a test score doesn't take into account certifications, college credits or personality traits that might give an applicant an edge. Assistant chiefs and deputy chiefs don't vote on appointments but sit in on the interviews and give commissioners input, Brown said.
"How do you put a real score or label on the gut feeling of our chief officers?" he asked.
The system works well, Brown said, estimating that 80 of the 120 candidates would make good firefighters.
If the city were to rank candidates in the order they are to be hired, he would prefer a single score that encompasses the written test and interview, Brown said. The interview panel should include officers from departments in other towns, Brown said.
"That's done in many communities," he said.
Daniel Hunsberger, a Stamford Fire & Rescue captain and vice president of the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut, which represents paid firefighters and dispatchers in 52 cities and towns, said there is no standard procedure for hiring firefighters across the state. Most require an interview, but how the interviews are conducted and scored varies widely, Hunsberger said.
"By and large, there's an element of subjectiveness because there are interviews," he said.
In some towns, a percentage of the candidate's score is based on the chief's assessment, Hunsberger said.
"It's just enough that a chief can influence the results of the components," he said.
Other towns contract with a testing company to administer the written exam and interviews, he said.
Stamford union president Brendan Keatley said Stamford's hiring practices are bringing in good recruits, and he has no complaints about their qualifications, but the city might consider tweaking the hiring process so it's not so mysterious. The city should post the hiring list and hiring procedures online to make the process more transparent, he said.
"There are many places in this country where you can click on a Web site and it tells you what the process is," Keatley said. "I think if a lot of this was explained more clearly, you wouldn't have so many questions."
The city also might consider changing the classified service rules so that the first half of the hiring list does not expire after two years, he said.
The 120 highest scorers on the exam who made it into the first three ranks won't be eligible to be hired after the top portion of the hiring list expires in September. At that point, the Fire Commission may hire only applicants from the fourth, fifth and sixth ranks, who had the lowest passing scores on the written exam given in August 2005.
Mayor Malloy said he favors more transparency but cautioned that, under the city Charter, the Fire Commission does not have to explain its decisions.
"No one has ever proposed changing it, as far as I remember, through Charter revision," Malloy said.
Written by The Stamford Advocate
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