Patronage and power, that two-headed monster responsible for cronyism and mediocrity in government, is trying to destroy the civil service test-merit system used to bring new firefighters to join the New York City Fire Department.

Leading the charge is Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis, who has determined that the FDNY’s entrance examinations were discriminatory, and that a new, politically correct system should be implemented for the sake of boosting the department’s diversity.

The problem began in 2002, when the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the city, claiming that the 1999 and 2001 Fire Department entrance exams were biased against African-American and Hispanic candidates. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of black firefighters, quickly joined the suit.

All local governments use civil service tests when they hire public servants, including members of the Vulcan Society who charged that the FDNY tests were unfair. Every candidate for a particular examination answers the same questions or performs the same task and receives scores based on the same factors.

But Judge Garaufis refuses to acknowledge the test’s ability to determine who gets the job, and in his ruling, he basically charged that the FDNY should change the way it tests candidates based on race and not on performance.

Garaufis himself didn’t have to take a civil service exam to get his seat on the federal bench. He was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Ironically, he was preceded in his job by the late Judge Charles P. Sifton, who also had problems with the civil service testing process. He was embroiled in the suits brought by women who claimed the FDNY test was discrimatory because the physical portion of the test was too hard.

Sifton ruled in 1982 that the city had discriminated against women and ordered the Fire Department to develop a new test. Even so, not many women are found in the ranks of the FDNY to this day. There are not many females who manifest the physical strength that is needed for the job, even though they do exceptionaly well in the written portion of the tests.

Because of Garaufis’ ruling and the city’s ongoing appeals of his decision, the FDNY has been prohibited from hiring new “probies.” As a result, overtime costs are spiralling out of control, and a host of current firefighters will be retiring this year to take advantage of the increased salaries due to the overtime. Most troubling, the city won’t be able to replace these impending retirees.

The judge’s actions are dangerous both to the city’s finances and the FDNY’s ability to have enough staff to do the life-saving job they are tasked with doing.

If Garaufis thinks that the FDNY should be more diverse, forcing the agency to tinker with its test isn’t the answer. The world’s most elite firefighting agency should be able to hire the best, the brightest, the bravest and the strongest candidates, regardless of the color of their skin.

When it comes to saving lives, mediocrity is unacceptable. Lowering the FDNY’s high standards won’t save any more lives, but it might take a few more of them.

Why doesn’t Judge Garaufis understand this?

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