Overtime costs could spiral out of control if a federal judge does not approve a new class of firefighters this year, an assistant FDNY commissioner testified yesterday.
Delays in hiring a new class of firefighters until a new racially unbiased entrance test is approved could cost the city $119.5 million over the next two years, Assistant Fire Commissioner Stephen Rush told a judge yesterday.
The city has called for the hiring of 300 new probationary firefighters by September to curb the spiraling overtime costs, but Brooklyn federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis put the brakes on the hiring, calling the current Fire Academy test biased against blacks and Hispanics.
As a result of a federal racial-discrimination lawsuit filed by the Vulcan Society, a black-firefighters group, Garaufis has ruled that the city must create a new test not racially slanted.
Vulcan Society lawyer Anjana Samant said: "If the city needs to hire, we're not going to stand in their way. All we're saying is if you're going to do it, do it right. Do it in a way that is not discriminatory."
City officials argue that there is no time and they must hire quickly to keep OT costs in check, Rush told the court at a special hearing in federal court.
Officials have also noted that there was a 30 percent uptick in black and Hispanic representation on the most recent exam.
"The cost of a probie firefighter is far less than paying overtime," the assistant commissioner said.
He estimated that if the city waited until 2012 to administer a new test, it would be 1,200 firefighters short and paying more than $50 million a year in overtime.
Public safety could also suffer, according to FDNY Chief of Operations Robert Sweeney, who also testified yesterday.
"In two years, we will have a safety issue. [Firefighters] will work with additional stress, there will be sloppiness and fatigue, and it's a safety issue for the firefighters if we are 1,200 men down."
But Sweeney said that in the short term, the department could still function with the reduced personnel.
"This year, it should have no impact on response time," he said.
The courtroom was packed with potential probationary firefighters who have already taken the test and made it into the top 300 but are waiting to see whether they will be allowed into the academy this year or be forced to take a new test.
"I had all the disadvantages that the Vulcan Society says they are trying to help," said David Cargin, 28, who is black. "I'm stuck in limbo."
Garaufis did not decide yesterday whether the city would be allowed to open an academy class before the end of the year, but passed the decision to the special master appointed to the case, former federal prosecutor Mary Jo White.
"It's a balancing act -- the city's need for firefighters and the court's obligation to fulfill civil-rights concerns," Garaufis said.
Many of the 40-plus Fire Academy candidates who sat through the entire day's proceeding expressed frustration.
"You have a lot of men and women of all races and creeds just waiting. We all studied and worked hard to become firemen, and this is a shame," said Sean McCauley, 23, of Staten Island, who added that he expected to be in the next class.