FDNY’s Improved Recruiting Formula: Data, Focus Groups, Follow-Through | News of the Week

In looking to maximize the number of candidates for the upcoming Firefighter exam while also significantly increasing the diversity of the applicants, Laura Kav­a­nagh directed the FDNY’s recruitment efforts through a long lens.

The focus, the Deputy Fire Commissioner of Governmental Affairs and Special Programs said, sitting in her office recently at the department’s MetroTech headquarters, was on “which methods are better at producing someone in the long-term who is going to be a Lieutenant or a Captain someday.”

Key Quality: Who Wants It?

That might have seemed counterintuitive, given the pressure from under-represented groups and the oversight by a court monitor geared to increasing their numbers in the entry-level position. But Ms. Kavanagh, during an hour-long interview, indicated that an old-fashioned approach—finding the most-motivated people who would want to rise through the ranks and convincing them to take the test—is also the best way to ensure greater diversity not only at the application stage but on the list that will result from testing that begins in September and continues through October.

And so the key for her and Assistant Commissioner Mi­chele Maglione, as well as other department personnel involved in recruitment and eventually serving as mentors for those who pass the test as they continue through the process and beyond the Fire Academy, was to get a sense of “who was going to move on” because they had developed “a dedication for the job.”

Among candidates who had family members already in the FDNY—who were more likely to be white—a strong interest was already likely to have been instilled in them by those relatives, sometimes by observation rather than elaborate pitches. For those less likely to have the Fire Department in their figurative or literal DNA, a more-strenuous selling job was required. Within some groups, Ms. Kav­anagh said, the work extended beyond the candidates them­selves and included convincing their parents that, notwith­standing its risks, the job provided both a solid living and a prestige they didn’t necessarily grasp as they pushed their children to seek more-traditional professional jobs as doctors or lawyers.

This was true in the department’s recruitment of Asian candidates, who in recent years have been increasing their representation to where they now constitute about 3 percent of the firefighting force.

Ending Negative Perceptions

“We really just tried to talk about what is the perception of the department and how can we change any negative perceptions,” Ms. Kavanagh said. Speaking more generally, she added, “We approach­ed the campaign with a wide scope of diversity.” The court monitor reports back to U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis as part of the $98-million settlement the de Blasio administration reached of the lawsuit first launched 15 years ago by the Vulcan Society of black firefighters, and the most-visible pressure on recruiting came from the Vulcans, who pushed the city to keep filing for the exam open until the percentage of African-American applicants exceeded by 3 percent their representation in the city’s population that fit the age requirements for the job.

But Ms. Kavanagh said the recruitment efforts were also intensified “not only with women but with Hispanics and Asians. We approached every bit of diversity equally.”

One reason the FDNY Hispanic Society had not been part of the lawsuit—which the U.S. Justice Department under President George W. Bush eventually joined a dec­ade ago—was that Latino Firefighters were steadily increasing their representation in the job over the previous decade even while the black Firefighter contingent stagnated. A stepped-up recruitment effort by the Bloomberg administration for the 2007 test sharply increased the passing candidates from those groups—to 38 percent of those who made the list for the 2007 exam compared to 21 percent of the test-takers five years earlier. But the Vulcans objected to that test, and Judge Garaufis nullified its results even though it had not been part of the original lawsuit, because too many of the passing black candidates were clumped toward the lower end of the hiring list, meaning they would have been less likely to be appointed had it been approved by Judge Garaufis.

Ignored ‘Social’ Chatter

To avoid a repeat of that good-faith effort that didn’t pass court muster, this time the FDNY and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services allowed the filing deadline to be extended on three occasions from the original April 25 cutoff. Each succeeding extension produced a growing clamor on social-media websites favored by white firefighters past and present who complained that the department was keeping filing open despite indications that the candidates it was pursuing didn’t care enough about the job to follow through on initial expressions of interest.

Ms. Kavanagh said she and her colleagues were unfazed by the outcry, and that there had been a method to the extensions. Each of them had been relatively short, she said, noting that there was an average of two weeks to each of the new filing periods.

“It was more helpful to have a couple of deadlines,” she said. “You want to keep it open roughly the same time so that people don’t think it’ll just keep going,” but with each extension, generally announced a few days before deadlines hit, designed to increase the urgency to get the applications in.

In fact, she said, the overall filing period of 66 days was one day shorter than for the 2012 test, and well short of the 89-day period for the 2007 test.

Nontraditional Background

In the past, the city has sometimes relied on psychometricians to design tests that would be free of bias and therefore likely to stand up to court scrutiny. Ms. Kav­a­nagh’s expertise is in different areas: politics and diplomacy. She got a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in international relations from Whittier College, the small liberal-arts California school which is best known as the alma mater of President Richard Nixon. And after working in the campaigns of local Members of Congress like Yvette Clarke and Hakeem Jeffries and that of President Barack Obama, she was a senior adviser during Bill de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign and then worked as an aide to him before becoming Assistant Fire Commissioner for External Affairs early in his administration.

She said there hadn’t been a “road map of what pieces they had done that were successful” for the past exams in terms of whether traditional forms of media advertising had been displaced by social media in piquing candidates’ interest. But the department this time around made a strong effort to get out into neighborhoods in ways that went beyond recruitment tables.

It held events for women at Randalls Island that gave them a chance to go through some of the drills that simulate actual firefighting duties. “A lot of people don’t know what the job really involves,” Ms. Kavanagh said. “They know what a firefighter is, but they don’t know what the job entails.”

Frank Gribbon, the department’s chief spokesman, cited a series of appearances at block parties meant to elicit interest in an atmosphere in which people were enjoying themselves by giving them a chance to work with some of the equipment that would be used in firefighting.

“At those events,” Ms. Kav­a­­nagh said, “you could see people who developed a love for the job.” She recalled one particularly hot day on Morris Ave. in The Bronx in which young people in attendance in spite of the humidity were dragging hose lines and hefting a saw and having a good time doing it.

Referring to two of the tools she brought with her from the political world, she said, “It was different this time around because we had a lot more data and focus groups.”

The focus groups helped FDNY officials see what questions had to be answered and qualms overcome.

“A lot of the women in the focus group weren’t sure you could be a mother and a firefighter,” Ms. Kavanagh said. They were shown a video of Sarinya Srisakul, head of Women Firefighters United, talking about how to balance both tasks, with her young son present during part of it.

Because of the role that many Asian parents play in their children’s picking a career, she said, events in that community were geared to having entire families present, with active Asian firefighters serving as translators for some parents during the recruitment pitches.

“The parents who we would see,” Mr. Gribbon said, “didn’t picture their kids in civil-service jobs,” which Ms. Kav­a­nagh said was attributable to the fact that in some of their homelands such jobs didn’t pay particularly well or carry the sort of respect accorded to firefighters here.

The danger inherent in the job wasn’t that big a factor in recruiting in that community or others, she said, explaining, “People are sort of self-sorting out of firefighting” and wouldn’t be expressing interest unless they hadn’t been discouraged by the risks the job carries.

“We’ve had people who say ‘I didn’t know I had to go on this ladder or into this burning building,’” she said, but FDNY videos quickly winnowed out those who weren’t eager to embrace those parts of the job.

On the other hand, Commissioner Kavanagh said, “Millennials tended to really want a job that gave back to their community, so we really benefited from that, as opposed to working on Wall Street.”

The department used “doz­ens” of touches through social-media accounts as well as calls and emails to make sure that those who expressed early interest followed through by attending subsequent events and then applying for the exam.

Recruiting methods had to change, she said, due to the reality that those who took the 2012 test but weren’t hired weren’t the largest cohort looking to compete on this year’s exam. One key reason was that a combination of settling into other careers and their moving toward the back end of the age limits worked against their taking a second shot. “Because of the time between tests, you’re getting a different generation of Firefighters each time,” Ms. Kavanagh said.

And the lengthy process before candidates are hired off the eligible list meant that an essential part of the discussions department officials led focused on the reality that even the highest scorers on the test figured to wait as much as two years before getting the job, thanks to a special promotion test offered to those now working as Emergency Medical Technicians giving them preference in the order of appointments.

“We don’t want them to think that because they signed up with us there’s a job waiting for them in the next week or the next month,” Ms. Kav­anagh said, adding that recruiters stress the lengthy process to avoid people harboring illusions about a speedy path to the firehouse. With that in mind, she said, “we talk with a lot of high school students because it gives them the time to plan before they need a job to pay the rent.” The Captain Vernon A. Richards High School for Fire and Life Safety in Brook­lyn’s East New York section, named in memory of a firefighter who was among the 343 FDNY members who died during the 9/11 rescue efforts, is geared toward those who want to get early preparation for a career in firefighting, as is the department’s Cadet program.

Mr. Gribbon noted the EMT path is also included in the pitch. Ms. Kavanagh said, “We recruit for EMS as well, using similar methods and all the technology and data we’ve collected. We try to work on finding out what candidates want to do next,” in terms of using that job as a short-cut to a career in firefighting or with an eye towards moving up the ranks of the Emergency Medical Service, either as paramedics or as officers.

Referring to the broader process of getting people engaged, whether in politics or firefighting, Ms. Kavanagh said, “I’ve done this work for a long time, and our FDNY recruiters are better at this than anyone I’ve seen. They want good young kids on the job.”

She acknowledged that among the 800 active firefighters who are enlisted as recruiters, a contingent of them were doing the work mainly for the overtime pay it provided, and that 100 from the group are used more regularly in the process because of their enthusiasm and their ability to motivate potential candidates, “not only because of our own goals but because of the court monitor. We don’t just have data about our candidates; we have it about our recruiters,” she said. “The department has a far-more-rigorous quality-control mechanism than in [political] campaigns. [The recruiters] understand how to take feedback, and they know they’re being watched.”

Originally from the San Francisco Bay area, Ms. Kav­a­nagh said, “I always wanted to be a New Yorker,” rather than staying at home or moving to a large city not as far away like Los Angeles. “I like really big, really chaotic, busy places, and this was the biggest.”

She was talking about the city, but her words also could apply to the Fire Department, whose racial makeup has begun to significantly change only in the wake of the last exam five years ago and under the prodding from Judge Garaufis and the court monitor that has continued the transformation in the testing process.

A past FDNY administration was convinced it had achieved a breakthrough a decade ago when 38 percent of the candidates to make the hiring list were black or Latino. About 42 percent of those who have actually been hired from the list based on the 2012 test were members of those groups, and that figure is likely to be surpassed—with the number of women and Asians also increasing—if the application numbers this time around translate to success on the test.

After the first filing extension on May 8, not quite 52,000 people had applied. Over the next 32 days, the number swelled to 72,595—nearly 13,000 above the total five years ago—and African-American hopefuls, who had been in the low 20-percent range early in the process, grew to 29 percent during that final push. Mr. Gribbon noted that Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro had committed more than $10 million of the department’s budget to the intensive recruitment campaign.

Across the board among the under-represented groups that had been targeted, there were significant jumps: 63 percent of the applicants were black, Latino or Asian, compared to 48 percent from those groups in 2012. The number of women more than doubled from 3,500 to roughly 9,000, with the biggest jump among Asian women, with 228 applying compared to 66 five years ago.

Commissioner Kavanagh dismissed the notion that it was time to take a victory lap, saying, “Our work doesn’t stop. We’re doing test-prep for the written test almost every day,” in locations ranging from FDNY headquarters to schools around the city.

Questions are still being received and answered, including those from a military veteran who just got deployed and a woman who recently gave birth about whether they could postpone their dates for taking the written test (they can reschedule).

Once the testing is completed and the list goes into use—which won’t happen until EMTs on the promotion list have all been called—mentorships will begin for those about to gain appointment to the Fire Academy. The mentors, Ms. Kavanagh said, in some cases will have been part of the recruiting process, but not necessarily with the candidates whom they will be advising.

For those unfamiliar with FDNY traditions, including the inoculation of “probies” that involves saddling them with menial chores and lesser assignments as they gain experience and acceptance into their companies, the use of mentors is “very much meant to help them understand the culture,” Commissioner Kavanagh said. “It also helps our mentors form a real bond with the mentees, so they’ll still have somebody to call when they have questions.”

And, she added, “who can encourage them to take the Lieutenant’s exam.”

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