“Are you selling pizza?” asked Maria Gonzalez, spotting a bright red flyer on her door.
No, replied Assistant Fire Chief Patrick Egan. But we’ve got a hundred open jobs.
The exchange took place on a recent morning on Blatchley Avenue, where Egan and firefighter Michael Neal (pictured above with Gonzalez) went door to door to spread the word about the fire department’s upcoming recruitment drive.
The city is looking to seat the first major class of entry-level firefighters since 2008. The department plans to hire between 80 and 120 firefighters in the next two years, according to Egan. Applications will be accepted from March 11 to March 22.
For the first time, firefighters are taking the campaign directly to the streets, distributing 15,000 door-hangers in New Haven neighborhoods. The first canvassers hit the Hill Thursday; five two-man teams continued the effort in Fair Haven.
Thursday’s canvassing expedition gave a glimpse at some of the reasons there aren’t more New Haveners on the firefighting force. Only a third of the city’s 270 firefighters live in New Haven, though many have roots there and moved away as adults, according to Egan. New Haveners get an extra five points on the written entrance exam; Egan stressed, however, that the city welcomes applicants from all zip codes. (The police department has also had trouble hiring citydwellers and is stepping up its community outreach.)
Egan headed for Fair Haven around 11 a.m. with Neal, a 15-year veteran firefighter who lives on Brownell Street in the Edgewood neighborhood. Neal is the head of the New Haven Firebirds, the black firefighters association. He said he grew up on Winter Street off of Dixwell Avenue; he used to play basketball near the firehouse down the street. He sees the fire department as a good way for young New Haveners to “get off the street and get a career.”
Neal hit the pavement in his uniform and department-issued Assault One Original boots. He stopped an African-American man pulling a recycling bin around the side of his house.
“My man!” called out Neal. “Here you go, buddy. I’m hiring!”
Neal caught up with him and handed him a flyer.
The man, Marcus Witherspoon, said he’s already employed in housekeeping at Yale-New Haven Hospital. But “I could check it out.”
The city fire department is about half white, a third black and the rest Hispanic. Neal said his aim in door-knocking isn’t to promote a certain racial group, but to make the recruitment drive “more open” to city residents. Getting more New Haveners on the fire force would mean more taxpayers for the city, he added.
On another street, Neal handed a flyer to a man on a porch.
“That’s a joke for me,” replied the man, who indicated he has a criminal record.
“As long as it’s not a felony ...” Neal replied. The city does not accept candidates with a felony conviction; misdemeanors are treated on a case-by-case basis.
The man said he didn’t want to get into details.
Neal didn’t let him off the hook in the recruitment drive: Even if he isn’t eligible, Neal said, “could you help out a cousin? A brother?”
On another street, Egan leaned down to the window of a woman pulling out of her driveway in a minivan.
Sandra Rivera (at left in photo) accepted a flyer. After Egan walked away, she discussed it with her sister, Yolanda Rivera (at right).
Yolanda said she thought her husband, who does maintenance work, might be interested. She asked how much the job pays. Entry-level firefighters make $36,491; pay goes up to $67,283 over the course of four years.
Sandra read a list of three basic requirements for an applicant: Be at least 18 years old; hold a valid Connecticut drivers license; hold a high school diploma or G.E.D.
Yolanda said that her husband didn’t meet that last criterion.
Neal said in his experience, there are plenty of qualified New Haveners out there. One of the biggest obstacles, he said, is that people don’t know enough about the job. People don’t know, for example, that you don’t need any firefighting knowledge to get on the force.
“We’ll teach you that,” Neal said.
Applicants take a fitness test, undergo a background check, and take written and oral exams. The exams aim to test common sense, not knowledge of fire science.
The last time the fire department seated a major class, over a thousand applicants poured in from the suburbs; 250 applied from New Haven. Consultants maintained the racial breakdown of the applicant pool matched that of the top-ranked candidates. That particular test caused a stir when 70 percent of applicants failed the written-oral combo. Egan said he didn’t have statistics on the pass rate of New Haveners compared to suburbanites, but in his experience, suburban applicants tended to have had much more experience sitting for fire department placement exams. Many suburban applicants had already applied to a half-dozen departments, whereas New Haveners were making their first attempt, he said.
After she learned they weren’t selling pizza, Maria Gonzalez gave the firefighters her blessing in their recruitment quest.
“I admire firemen,” she said. “They save lives.”
“God is first,” she clarified. But “you guys are second.”
Interested applicants are invited to four open houses: Feb. 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the New Haven Fire Academy, 230 Ella T. Grasso Blvd.; March 1 at 6:30 p.m. at Hill Regional Career High School, 140 Legion Ave.; March 4 at 6:30 p.m. at Fair Haven School, 164 Grand Ave.; March 5 at 6:30 p.m. at James Hillhouse High School, 480 Sherman Parkway. Call (203) 946-7110 for more info.