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Buffalo Fire Department plans hiring spree

The Buffalo Fire Department is about to go on a hiring spree.

But if you are interested in applying, you probably already have missed the boat.

Those hired will come from a civil service list based on a 2013 firefighter exam that contains the names of 1,900 candidates. And the list is good for four years, meaning that it won’t expire until November 2017.

An estimated 125 recruits are expected to be hired from the list by the middle of next month. Because of the large number, the Fire Department is taking the unprecedented step of holding two Fire Training Academy classes over the same 12-week period. One class will train for four 10-hour days, then be off for four, while the other class is training.

The three months of classes are timed to conclude just in time for the new firefighters to begin work when the department anticipates a number of retirements because of a change in health insurance for retirees after June 30.

“We’re going to be in a hiring mode for the next couple of years,” Mayor Byron W. Brown said of the need to bolster the firefighting ranks. The department currently has 592 firefighters and officers and 113 vacancies.

The last time the Fire Department held a training class was in 2012, when 37 new firefighters were added to the rolls.

An aging workforce is also pushing the demand for new hires, with the average age of a city firefighter at 47 in what is considered a young person’s profession because of the intense physical demands.

“We want to infuse some young blood into the department. We know approximately a third of the department is eligible for retirement, but we don’t know how many will take advantage of the opportunity to retire in June,” Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. said.

A fully paid, top-of-the line health care plan is being offered to those who retire by June 30, he said.

The wave of hirings comes at a time when the city has filed a motion in U.S. District Court seeking to end federal oversight of departmental hires. The oversight began in 1978 because of discrimination against minorities and women. Action on the request pending before U.S. District Senior Judge John T. Curtin is not expected for several months.

Over the years, the city has increased the number of minorities and women in the Fire Department, and the current hiring list promises to continue that trend with minorities and women well represented, according to Whitfield.

The department currently includes 410 white male firefighters and officers; 124 black male firefighters and officers; five black female firefighters but no officers; 18 white female firefighters and officers; and 35 Hispanic male firefighters and officers.

By filling empty spots and paying less to new firefighters, who must work 11 years before reaching the top of the pay scale, Whitfield said overtime costs are expected to be reduced. Firefighters with the most seniority are paid $68,461 a year, while new hires start at $35,000 annually.

“We have expended a lot of money in overtime, and that’s a big deal,” the commissioner said. “We want to greatly reduce it with these two classes.”

In the 2013-14 fiscal year, the department spent $9.6 million in overtime. To date in the current fiscal year, overtime is at $7.7 million.