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Commission prepares for more thorough interviews

By Donna Porstner
Staff Writer

Published March 16 2006

STAMFORD CT -- The Fire Commission, which took heat for spending only a few minutes with firefighter candidates last fall, plans to spend up to 36 hours reinterviewing applicants this spring.

The commission is scheduled to meet six times -- twice in March, twice in April and twice in May -- to interview more than 100 job candidates who passed the written and physical tests.

Chairman Dick Lyons said the five-member commission will decide in late May or early June so the new recruits will be on board in time to enter the state fire academy in July.

"We're allowing between 15 and 20 minutes per interview," Lyons said. "That's why we had to spread them over such a long time."

The commission hired four men from the August exam but threw out its list of alternates and ordered a second round of interviews after The Advocate questioned why relatives of city officials were chosen over applicants with higher scores. The mayor's nephew, the fire chief's son and the son of fire Commissioner E. Gaynor Brennan were among the eight alternates.

Three of the top performers on the written exam told The Advocate they left their interviews in November with the impression that the new hires had been predetermined. The commission spent two or three minutes with each and did not ask any personal questions, they said. One applicant said he was asked only to verify his address and employer.

Commissioners have said they did nothing wrong but had to restart the process to defend their integrity. Lyons likened the criticism to being "beaten up like a baby seal."

This time, members asked the Human Resources Department to provide all the applicants' raw exam scores.

Last time they saw only banded scores, which groups candidates by test score. Without actual scores, they had no way of knowing whether they were choosing someone with a higher score over someone with a lower score, commissioners said. The alternates they selected came from all three groupings -- top, middle and lowest scores.

The commission has the authority to hire anyone who passes the written and physical tests. Applicants had to get at least 47 percent of the questions right to pass the Aug. 6 exam. The physical portion is pass or fail.

Since then, Director of Human Resources Dennis Murphy instructed the volunteer board to come up with a rating system that assesses candidates using the same criteria. The commission is expected to adopt new hiring procedures when it holds a special meeting at fire headquarters 5 p.m. Wednesday. Members are expected to make two promotions at that meeting.

Fire Chief Robert McGrath recently told the Board of Finance that the seven vacancies in his department are draining his overtime budget since he has to fill the positions on overtime to meet minimum manpower requirements.

Stamford Fire & Rescue is expected to spend $1.9 million overtime in the fiscal year ending June 30, Director of Public Safety, Health and Welfare William Callion said. That's an increase from the $1.3 million spent last year but less than the $2.1 million spent two years ago, Callion said.

The high number of vacancies, a rash of injuries on the job that kept firefighters out of work and a spike in major fires that required calling back employees contributed to overtime costs, Callion said.

Overtime spending is expected to decrease this summer when the four new recruits in the fire academy are on the job and the three vacancies are filled.

The department is expected to hire at least 11 new firefighters by July -- three to fill existing vacancies plus eight new positions created by a recent contract settlement.

Lyons said all job interviews will be conducted behind closed doors unless the candidate requests it be held in public.

"They'll be advised at the beginning of the session and, if they want to go out of executive session, they can," he said.

Copyright 2006, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.