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Scheduling of next firefighters exam favors city residents

Changes in the scheduling of the upcoming Buffalo firefighters exam favor city residents, especially those who have no weekday commitments.

Unlike past civil service exams to establish lists for hiring firefighters, for the upcoming exam city residents will not have to compete against suburban residents.

In past years, interested applicants have been able to move into the city to satisfy the 90-day residency requirement to take the test. But this year, the upcoming exam wasn’t announced until after the deadline for moving into the city had passed.

City officials announced the November exam Aug. 19, only 61 days before the Oct. 19 deadline to submit an application to take the test.

“The bottom line is we want city residents, and the new firefighter contract says you have to live in the city your entire career,” Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. said.

The test will be given Nov. 19, a Tuesday, breaking with the tradition of holding exams on a Saturday, which made it easier for individuals with job or school commitments to take the test.

City firefighting jobs, though dangerous, are sought by many, and candidates who have taken the exam often wait years to be called up.

In a region that struggles economically, the job can be worth the wait: It offers a starting pay of $35,000 that incrementally advances to $68,000 annually, plus overtime opportunities and a full benefits package.

Whitfield said the test was delayed because of the time needed to formulate questions and to obtain federal approval under a court order overseeing the hiring of minorities.

So far, 822 people have applied to take the test.

The leader of the Buffalo firefighters’ union criticized the way the test was announced and the fact that it is being held on a weekday, saying the changes could result in the city having to hire less-qualified applicants from a smaller pool of candidates.

“The city has some good candidates, but by this exam announcement, you’re limiting and eliminating the potential of the best-qualified candidates the City of Buffalo can recruit,” said Daniel M. Cunningham, president of the Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association, Local 282. “I think they just want city people to take the test.”

Under a contract approved in June – the first new pact for firefighters in more than a decade – all newly hired city firefighters must remain in the city their entire careers, ending what was a common practice of interested applicants moving into the city prior to the exam and then leaving for the suburbs after getting hired and passing probation.

Approximately 65 percent of the department’s 719 firefighters live outside the city. Many say they want their children enrolled in better-performing suburban schools, Cunningham said.

“If we had known they were doing this, we may have never, ever agreed to the residency requirement in the city contract,” Cunningham said of the delay in announcing the test.

The union president also acknowledged that there are children of firefighters who grow up and follow in their parents’ career footsteps, and said that the city’s actions now make it difficult for that to happen for the families of firefighters living outside the city.

“There are some sons who got on the job,” Cunningham said. “It is true, generation to generation, and it is not a bad thing. What the city eliminated is hiring the best-qualified candidate.”

It could be argued, he said, that the city is conducting reverse discrimination against potential test-takers who would have been willing to move into the city before the 90 days and then spend their careers living in Buffalo.

A civil service hiring list is good for up to four years before it expires.

The city last gave a firefighters exam in 2008.

Whitfield said suburban residents who in the past have moved into the city to qualify to take the exam never intended to remain in the city.

“The notion that the city discouraged anyone from taking the exam is ridiculous,” he said.

Whitfield said the goal in the current recruitment drive is to make sure the department’s members racially reflect the city’s population.

At present, the department has 145 African-Americans, 36 Hispanics and 25 female firefighters of various ethnicities. The remaining members of the 719-member department are white males, Whitfield said.

“These numbers reflect a hiring court order that we have been under for a number of years,” he said. “The city has a diverse population, and the makeup of the department needs to reflect that.”

He also said that having city residents as firefighters keeps money in the city and can improve struggling neighborhoods.

Scheduling the exam on a weekday, Cunningham said, will force people already employed to call in sick or make other provisions and encourage college students to skip classes.

“What are we teaching the kids?” he asked.

Whitfield said those taking the test have three months to make arrangements to be available for it.

Applications to sign up for the test, which will be held in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center on Franklin Street downtown, are available online at There is a $25 filing fee, and candidates must have a high school diploma or GED.

If a candidate can prove a hardship, the fee is waived.