A City Council proposal to raise the age limit for Firefighters is prompting legislators to simultaneously look to improve the retention at the Emergency Medical Service after union reps warned the plan would accelerate a longstanding trend of EMTs using the job as just a “stepping-stone” to the higher-paying position, THE CHIEF-LEADER has learned.
Under a proposal backed by Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, chair of the Council’s Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, the maximum age to apply to become a Firefighter would be raised from 28 to 30. The city offers the written FDNY test once every four years, which generates a list of eligibles who passed the test and must be called during the list’s four-year life to be hired.
Oldest Hiring Age 35
Ms. Crowley’s bill also mandates a 35-year-old cut-off for when a successful applicant can actually join the FDNY.
The bill, introduced by Councilman Andy King, has attracted 11 additional sponsors, and at an Oct. 19 hearing drew dozens of witnesses, testifying that it would help the city achieve its goal of increasing the representation of both women and people of color in the firefighting ranks.
Laura Kavanagh, the FDNY’s Deputy Commissioner for Government Affairs, testified that the proposal would help because it would open the ranks of the department to candidates who “don’t come from families or neighborhoods where this career path is common, and so they aren’t aware of it or don’t pursue it until they’ve explored other careers.”
She said the city Law Department had determined such a change would require sign-off from the State Civil Service Commission and that the Office of Management and Budget would want to see whether the measure would have any fiscal impact.
Fire Test Looming
Another critical consideration for the FDNY, Ms. Kavanagh told the Council, is the timing of the possible adoption of the measure. “One key point that we do want to raise at this time is concern about implementing such a change in advance of the open-competitive Firefighter exam next year,” Ms. Kavanagh testified.
The EMT unions warned of unintended consequences, including accelerating the attrition rate they testified was already causing problems within the ranks of EMTs, Paramedics, and their supervisors.
Vincent Variale, president of the officers union, Local 3621 of District 37, told the Council panel that as a consequence of the merger of EMS into the FDNY 21 years ago, the medical first-responders were eligible to take a Firefighter promotion exam that gave them a considerable leg up on outside applicants. “EMS is already suffering from a high attrition rate due to low salaries and lack of any real career ladder, and became a stepping-stone for those aspiring to become a firefighter,” he testified.
Draining EMS Ranks
“The promotional exam became a loophole” into “the fire-suppression side, increasing the EMS attrition rate and decreasing the amount of experienced EMTs and Paramedics,” testified Mr. Variale. “These shortages force the use of unreliable, for-profit, private ambulance companies instead of FDNY ambulances to provide service in the 911 system.”
“At this point when you’re telling somebody, ‘do you want to stay in EMS or go to Fire, and they look at the salary being $20,000 to $40,000 more a year, and let’s face it, Fire has an excellent support staff and the resources supporting Fire are far better than EMS,” he stated. “When you see the difference between the two, there is not much of a choice.”
Israel Miranda, president of DC 37 Local 2507, which represents 4,000 EMTs, Paramedics and Fire Inspectors, says the promotion test “has been abused” by many employees “who come to EMS only to move over to the fire side by circumventing the very competitive open exam. With one year on the job and at least [a score of] 75 on the written exam a person will get the preference over a person with a 100 [score] who was on the open public competitive test.”
But the overwhelming number of witnesses echoed the sentiments of Sarinya Srisakul, a Firefighter and president of United Women Firefighters.
‘Archaic, Biased Age Limit’
“In my 11 years of helping to recruit women to the FDNY, I have had to tell many viable women candidates in their late 20s and early 30s that they were not eligible, just because of an archaic and biased decades-old age limit,” said Ms. Srisakul. “Without data to show otherwise, the 28-year age limit is simply discriminatory. Out of the top 30 major cities, 67.6 percent do not have an age cap for their firefighter exams, and the ones that do have an age limit of 35.”
Many of the witnesses were “aged-out” millennials who had spent several years trying to secure a spot with the FDNY like 29-year-old Lauren Renzulli, whose father is a retired Firefighter.
“This is all I have wanted to do since I was five. I even got a degree in fire science,” she testified. “I could join the Army at 35 and four years later I could be sent to Afghanistan wearing a hundred pounds of gear but I can’t join the FDNY. Across the country it is 35, the Air Force is 39 and the NYPD is 35.”
Also well-represented were individual members of the EMS who had run out of time to make the move to the fire side.
Shizam Dalbarry moved to the U.S. from Trinidad when he was nine, and now has five years on the job as an EMT. He long dreamed of becoming a Firefighter, but said he ultimately gravitated to EMS because it included a good representation of people of color.
“When I was a kid I went to a firehouse in Queens and I walked up to a firefighter and I said I wanted to be a firefighter and I asked what were the steps and he asked me if I was Italian or Irish, and when I said no, he said that I could not be a firefighter,” said Mr. Dalbarry. “So I just thought it was a law.”
After the 2½ hour hearing, Ms. Crowley said in an interview she was heartened by the turn-out. “I didn’t hear anyone testify against the bill,” she said. “There’s a lot of support for increasing the age of what an applicant can be when they take the Fire Department test.”
The Council chair said she saw a sweet spot “for compromise,” to both raise the age for FDNY applicants, while also providing additional career paths for EMTs, Paramedics, and Fire Inspectors to encourage retention in their ranks.