Over three days starting April 30, 750 people took the test for a coveted Miami firefighter job. When the scores were released three weeks later, applicants who passed rejoiced, and those who failed were crestfallen.
But quickly, some of those smiles turned into frowns and the frowns into smiles.
It turned out all the scores were wrong, because incorrect answers had been programmed into the computer that graded the exams.
“People started calling and complaining,” said Robert Suarez, union president for the city’s 600 firefighters. “People who took the test in the past, and who usually do better on the follow up, did horrible.”
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The two-part computerized test was administered at the Koven Conference Center on the Biscayne Bay campus of Florida International University by testers for the city’s human resources office, from April 30 through May 2. It required the applicants to answer questions by filling in a corresponding bubble with a pencil. The answers were then fed into a computer.
The problem was the master answer sheet with all the correct answers was never fed into the computer. Instead, the first test turned in was fed into the computer and recognized as the master answer sheet.
Scores were emailed to test-takers on May 20, and complaints started pouring in, especially from applicants who had taken the test before and expected to do well this time.
Administrators took a look and found the error. They re-graded the exam, mailing out new scores on Friday.
Commissioner Francis Suarez, who is running for mayor in November, didn’t mince words about the city’s mistake: “Ridiculous.’’
“You have many people who apply and have their hopes up,’’ he said. “It’s a great job. There are going to be a lot of people disappointed.’’
Kevin Newcomb, 24, whose dad Keith is a captain with Miami Fire Rescue, thought he hadn’t done particularly well when he first received his exam score. But when he got the updated results, only 19 people had higher scores. The bar-back at the Hole In The Wall Tavern in South Miami-Dade said he quickly went from disappointed to “ecstatic.’’
“I told everybody at the bar,’’ even people who didn’t care about it, he said.
Several other applicants declined to speak with a reporter because they still aren’t certain whether they’ve scored high enough to move to the next step of the hiring process.
City Manager Johnny Martinez called the snafu a programming error. Other than administrative time for re-programming the results and emailing the applicants, Martinez said no additional costs were incurred. He said new “checks and balances” would be put in place to prevent the mistake from happening again. He said no one would be disciplined.
Even without the stress of a test malfunction, landing a job as a Miami firefighter/paramedic is tough. The test is only offered every two years. From 750 applicants, the city is looking to hire only 30 to 45 new firefighters, or about the top 5 percent of the applicants, union chief Suarez said.
This time, the first half of the exam involved showing a video and applicants being asked to recall what they remembered from it. The second half was basic questions involving firefighting.
Just to take the test an applicant must be a licensed emergency medical technician. There also is a physical agility test.
Pay starts at about $42,000 a year. Though many of the jobs perks and benefits have been cut in recent years as the administration struggled with budget deficits, several firefighters have been among the top earning employees in the city.
In February 2009, well into the recession, Miami advertised in local newspapers for 35 firefighting positions. More than 1,000 job-seekers showed up, many spending the night outside the government center where the applications were being accepted.
Suarez, the fire union chief, was upset that the recent grading error was caught only after applicants began calling in to complain. He wants assurances that the same error cannot happen again.