The city of Springfield lowered the passing grade for its most recent written civil service test given to firefighter applicants, a move the firefighters union called insulting and said lowers hiring standards.
The cutoff line was reduced for this test only because the city has seen such a drop in applicants, Springfield Personnel Director Jeff Rodgers said. It won’t result in the hiring of unqualified candidates, he said.
Last month 32 people applied for up to 11 positions open with the fire division by June and 28 took the civil service test — a 77 percent decrease in applications and a 75 percent drop in examinations from 2013.
Every prospective firefighter for the Springfield Fire/Rescue Division must pass a written exam. The minimum score typically had been set at 70 percent, Rodgers said.
After the last civil service test in January, city staff members and its testing consultant recommended lowering the passing grade to 66 percent to create a bigger list of possible candidates for later this year, Rodgers said. The recommendation was approved last week by the Civil Service Commission.
“There’s no doubt that this is a lower turnout, so having a few more bodies over the line, it does help,” Rodgers said. “We’re not going to hire anybody at the end of this process that’s unqualified. It’s just a matter of who gets over the line to start the process.”
The Springfield Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 333 strongly opposes the change, President Andrew Rigsbee told city commissioners this week.
“We believe that we’ve set a standard and we believe that standard is good,” he said. “It distresses us and insults us greatly that we’re now in the middle of a recruitment and retention problem and our answer is to lower the standard.”
The answer to getting enough firefighters and police officers isn’t lowering the standards, Rigsbee said. He spoke of a scenario where the entrance standards were lowered for both entry into medical school and passing the medical boards.
“Do you guys want to go to that doctor?” Rigsbee asked. “I don’t. … So now we’re lowering the standard for the people who come to your house during your darkest hour?”
It’s not acceptable for the city to place its current firefighters with people who couldn’t pass the same test they had to, he said.
The change was made without input from Springfield commissioners, Mayor Warren Copeland said.
“The civil service people don’t ask us for anything on that,” he said. “That was done without us.”
City staff members have the leeway to set the cutoff line for civil service tests and it has been lowered in the past, Rodgers said.
The Civil Service Commission followed the consultant and city’s recommendation to decrease the acceptable test score because of the low turnout, Civil Service Commission President Bruce Sigman said. It provides the city a bigger pool to draw from, he said, as well as a better chance for some applicants.
“It’s not something permanent,” he said.
Sigman wouldn’t have supported lowering the score any further.
Consultants recommended lowering the score, City Manager Jim Bodenmiller said, but the difference wouldn’t affect the quality of applicants or lower the standard for employment.
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“We’ve all taken tests in our lives and you know that any given day your score can vary a little bit,” he said. “A couple points here or there on a written test is not the real key.”
Before being hired, prospective firefighters are fully vetted in many other ways, Bodenmiller said, including an interview, physical agility test, a polygraph test, a background check, drug screening and a medical examination.
“We thoroughly vet and try to get the best people,” Bodenmiller said. “We’ve always hired good people. I would put our police, fire and all of our employees up against any.”
As the city has struggled financially, pay hasn’t kept up with other communities while the calls for service increase, Rigsbee said. Cities the size of Springfield typically have between 10,000 and 11,000 calls a year, he said, but Springfield sees 18,000.
Base pay for a firefighter/paramedic not in a leadership position tops out at about $58,000 annually, while the same position tops out at about $83,000 in Kettering.
“Now we’re starting to see people who are leaving for smaller departments and the primary driver seems to be better wages,” Rigsbee said.
Bodenmiller is confident the fire department will continue to be staffed with the best people. While Springfield’s benefits package is reasonably competitive with other cities, he said its pay is lower than other places and the city can’t raise wages due to its finances.
“We understand that,” Bodenmiller said. “There’s not a lot we can do with that.”
The city asked residents for an income tax increase in November and the issue was defeated at the polls. That led to the closure of both Fire Station No. 5 and the police substation on Johnny Lytle. It also cut about $100,000 in overtime from both the police and fire budgets.
A similar issue has been placed on the May ballot.
“It’s tough times and I think everybody is feeling all of that,” Bodenmiller said.
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By the numbers
113: People who took the firefighter civil service test in January of 2013.
28: People who took the firefighter civil service test last month.
66: The passing grade for the most recent test, lowered from the typical score of 70.
Source: City of Springfield Personnel Department
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