In this year’s town election voters are being asked to decide whether the Fire Department should follow the lead of the Police Department and depart from the state’s civil service hiring and promotion system.

The vote would ratify last year’s Annual Town Meeting decision to make Needham the latest community to have its public safety departments exit the state’s 140-year-old civil service system. 

Initially established as a reform measure to clean up the 19th century “spoils system” for public hiring, civil service has come to be widely held as an inefficient relic that has a net negative impact on municipal hiring and promotion practices.

“I think the system was important in its day,” said Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick, who helped negotiate the exit with both the police and fire departments. “It’s just not a system that works well with the workforce that we’re trying to recruit.”

As was done previously with the Police Department, the town and Fire Department leadership reached agreement with the firefighters union to allow for the use of a locally created recruitment system. This will allow the town to select candidates based on criteria that extend beyond exam scores, and to expand the pool of qualified candidates available for hiring. 

“It’s more difficult with the civil service testing system to hire the people that we need to fill the vacancies that we have,” said Fire Chief Thomas Conroy. “Typically, civil service will give a test every two years. Once that list is exhausted, we really have nowhere else to look. There’s nowhere else to hire from because we’re locked into civil service.

“So we have to wait for another two years ‘till another test comes out, is given and then needs to be certified, which is essentially more than two years.”

Conroy noted the department currently has three vacant positions that have been hard to fill. The void makes scheduling a challenge, especially when members of the department are unavailable due to injuries incurred on duty.

“Now we’re trying to fill those vacancies with overtime, rather than getting people that we need in here for straight time,” he said. “And then you’re talking burnout rate because people are working more. So I just think it’s going to be a better system down the road for Needham.”

Like Conroy, Fitzpatrick emphasized the constraints the antiquated system places on hiring in the 21st century.
“If you can imagine a Gen Z individual who wants to be a firefighter or a paramedic and you tell them, ‘Two years from now, in October, you can spend $350 to take a test. Then, nine months later, you’ll get your grades, and then maybe we’ll call you.’

“I mean, you can’t even imagine that somebody would do that anymore.”

State is studying, but not acting

State officials are not oblivious to the widespread dissatisfaction with the system. According to the State House News Service, at least 36 police departments and eight fire departments that were once governed by Massachusetts’ civil service law have left the service. Needham is among 18 municipalities with departments currently seeking to get out of civil service via a home-rule petition to the Legislature.

A special legislative commission has been established to study and examine the civil service law, but while that study is ongoing the Legislature has consistently declined to act on any of these home-rule petitions. 

A provision of state law, however, allows Needham to act on its own to exit the system without legislative action. Because the town voted to participate in the civil service program 1956, it now may exit the civil service system in the same way.

In last year’s town election, voters overwhelmingly approved the Police Department’s exit with 72.7% of the vote — the highest percentage of any issue or contested race on the 2023 ballot.

Fitzpatrick said a similar outcome this year will enable the town to improve how it makes hires and promotions by not having to reward high scores on standardized tests.

“We’re required to hire one of the top three people who passed the exam and got a high score,” she said. “Well, as everybody will tell you, particularly for promotion, doing really well on an exam isn’t necessarily the person you want to lead you into a burning building.”

Fitzpatrick said police and fire have been the only two town departments operating under the civil service rules. “You find almost no towns that have civil service,” she said, other than for police and fire. “Some cities do, but it’s very unusual for a town form of government.”

The removal process involved negotiations with the firefighters union. “They had a very reasonable and favorable package when it got passed in the spring,” said Fitzpatrick. “There were a number of items that we had agreed to, one of them involving education pay.”

“This was bargained with the union. We wouldn’t be doing this without their agreement.”

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