Stamford fire officials may be in a situation similar to one that entangled their counterparts in New Haven nearly two decades ago.
In promoting firefighters, officials may be discriminating against some to avoid discriminating against others.
The New Haven dispute began in 2003, when 77 firefighters took a promotion exam but none of the 19 Black candidates scored high enough to warrant a rise in rank. New Haven officials, fearing that Black firefighters would sue them, threw out the test.
The city instead was sued by 19 White firefighters who would have been promoted as a result of the test. The white firefighters ultimately won their case in the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2009 ruled that they were unfairly denied promotions because of their race.
Stamford’s dispute plays out on a smaller scale.
In 2015, six years after the New Haven decision, Stamford officials administered an entry-level firefighters test that drew more than 700 applicants, but they threw out the results after only a small number of minority applicants passed.
Stamford officials suspended testing for two years while they hired a top-notch consultant, Morris & McDaniel, to devise new entry-level and promotion exams, and to provide precise scores for evaluating candidates.
Then, during a 2017 exam to decide fire department promotions, city officials rounded the scores, which Morris & McDaniel had extended to four decimals, to whole numbers and grouped them in “bands.”
A band could, for example, include a candidate with a score of 71 and a candidate with an 83. City officials considered the scores within a band to be tie, allowing them to pick from a larger number of candidates and increase the likelihood of hiring or promoting minority applicants.
In 2018 four firefighters who scored well on the 2017 exam sued the city after they were not promoted as a result of rounding and banding.
This June, city officials, without admitting wrongdoing, settled the lawsuit for $250,000, and promoted three of the four firefighters to the positions they were seeking when they were passed over in 2017.
But it’s unlikely the dispute will end there.
‘Is that a smart thing to do in public safety?’
Results have yet to be released for an entry-level firefighters exam administered in the spring, and an exam to decide fire lieutenant and captain promotions is scheduled to be administered later this year.
In the wake of the lawsuit, the actions of the city’s Human Resources Department, which qualifies job applicants, and the Fire Commission, a panel of five mayoral appointees who decide hires and promotions, will be closely watched.
“If they throw out a test to get the results they want, if they manipulate scores to hire the candidates they want, is that a smart thing to do in public safety?” said Paul Anderson, president of the Stamford Professional Fire Fighters Association. “I don’t care what someone looks like. I don’t care if they’re male or female. I only care if you can do the job well, because once you’re here, you’re blue. We have to be able to rely on each other in case of a life-or-death situation involving ourselves or the public.”
A transcript of the lawsuit shows Stamford officials have gone to great lengths to give themselves maximum leeway in deciding who is hired and promoted in the fire department.
They battled the firefighters in court for four years, even after a judge put a hold on promotions until the case was resolved. The hold resulted in unfilled positions and untold expenses for overtime and salary bumps when firefighters had to do the work of lieutenants, and lieutenants had to do the work of captains.
In 2020, in the middle of the lawsuit, which cost the city roughly $1 million, officials altered civil service rules to allow themselves broad interpretation of exam scores.
“They changed the rules to legitimize anything they want to do with the tests,” Anderson said.
Now testing for ‘motivation’
Chief Trevor Roach testified during the case that the Stamford Fire Department is seeking to diversify the ranks.
When he was assistant chief in 2013, trainee classes were 50 percent minority, compared with 5 percent to 10 percent in previous years, Roach testified. When he became chief in 2016, the department was 17.5 percent minority, but by 2019 the number had fallen to 10 percent because of retirements, Roach said.
“We work hard at getting that back up,” Roach told the court. “Stamford is the most diverse city in the state of Connecticut … We should be reflective of our community. So that is one of my objectives.”
Roach said his goal for entry-level firefighter positions is to “hire a highly motivated person … as long as they can read at the 12th-grade level and do math at the 12th-grade level … That’s what we are now testing for is motivation.”
Former Legal Affairs Director Kathryn Emmett, head of the city Department of Human Resources during the administration of then-Mayor David Martin, testified that competitive exam scores “identify a rank order of candidates for a position, but other factors are also important.”
A difference of a couple of points between scores “is not something that under our rules we consider to be determinative of who’s eligible for consideration for a position,” Emmett testified.
But the range of scores can be larger than a couple of points, Anderson said.
“When you tell me that a 98 is potentially the same score as a 78, because of the bands you created, I’m going to wonder whether you are hiring and promoting the most capable candidates,” Anderson said.
In the spirit of civil service
The purpose of the civil service system is to ensure objectivity, said Brian Whitbread, one of the firefighters who brought the lawsuit. But rounding and banding scores creates subjectivity, Whitbread said.
“If decisions aren’t based on merit and fitness, they aren’t objective,” he said. “If you are a White person, a minority person, a woman, if you are the fire commissioner’s son and you don’t meet the requirements, you should not be hired, you should not be promoted. There’s so much at stake in the public-safety sector.”
The city’s scoring practices put preferred candidates “in the room,” Whitbread said. It’s a reference to the interview room where fire commissioners meet candidates, ask them a few questions, then retreat behind closed doors with the fire chief to choose in private who will be hired or promoted.
The term harkens back to days when fire department hires and promotions were egregiously mishandled. In 2006, for example, the Fire Commission threw out its list of candidates after it was revealed that low-scorers who were nonetheless offered jobs included a commissioner’s son, the fire chief’s son, and the mayor’s nephew.
“When you get away from merit-based hires and promotions, you have issues,” Anderson said.
The city should find a better way to diversify the department, Whitbread said.
“We should work harder to provide opportunity for people interested in firefighting,” he said. “Let’s do a better job recruiting.”
The city needs a stronger recruitment program, Anderson said.
“Stamford has Wright Tech, a great technical high school. Those students could bring their skills to the department straight out of school,” Anderson said. “The fire department should represent the demographic of the city. We should start with high school kids.”
The city has work to do in the firehouses, Anderson said.
“We have three female firefighters and no facilities for them,” he said. “The city talks about equity and diversity but doesn’t provide basic facilities for women to work in the department.”
Roach did not return a request for comment. Neither did Legal Affairs Director Doug Dalena.
Lauren Meyer, who handles communications for Mayor Caroline Simmons, said “banding provides the best way to ensure the most qualified candidates are considered for hiring and promotion because it recognizes the inherent limitations of testing.”
Banding and similar practices do “not hinder recruiting, hiring, and promoting the most qualified candidates,” Meyer said. “Instead, it makes it more likely.”
Whitbread said results from the entry-level exam of a few months ago and from the upcoming exam for lieutenant and captain promotions will reflect the city’s stance on scoring.
“There will be 100 firefighters taking the lieutenants exam because they know this new banding process will get them through the door,” he said. “It promotes a mentality of, ‘I don’t have to try.’ Why bother studying hard to get a 95 when someone can come in with a 75 and be considered to have the same score as you?”
This piece has been updated to include comments by Lauren Meyer, which were submitted prior to publication, but not in time to be included in the original story