By Jill Colvin
CITY HALL — Greg Lashaw has dreamed of being a firefighter for most of his life.
After growing up surrounded by men in uniform in Rockland County and watching them fight heroically on 9/11, Lashaw, who lives in Hell's Kitchen, signed up to take the FDNY's qualifying test when he was 24.
Almost five years later, he's still working as a doorman on the Upper East Side, locked out of his dream job by a hiring freeze following a ruling that the FDNY's test was deemed discriminatory against minority candidates.
To make matters worse, at 29, Lashaw is now too old to re-apply, according to FDNY rules.
But under new legislation the City Council is expected to pass Thursday, Lashaw could be given a second chance when hiring eventually resumes.
"It would mean the world. I've been preparing for it almost every minute for the past five years," Lashaw said.
Under current FDNY rules, applicants are barred from enrolling for the tests once they turn 29. The new legislation, introduced by City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., would raise the age limit to 36 for those who've already taken the exam but who've been caught up in the suit.
"If we don’t pass this legislation, many people who prepared and dedicated themselves for the opportunity to become firefighters would not be able to see that goal realized through no fault of their own," said City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, chair of the fire and criminal justice committee, which held a hearing on the plan Wednesday.
"If we don’t act, they’ll be too old to apply by the time the next application is open," she said.
The city is set to re-open its application pool on July 1, forcing the council to act immediately, Crowley said.
The city is currently embroiled in litigation over the FDNY's hiring practices. Last January, a federal judge ruled the FDNY had intentionally discriminated against blacks for decades by using entrance exams designed to keep them out.
"New York City’s use of these examinations constitutes a pattern and practice of intentional discrimination against blacks," Judge Nicholas Garaufis had ruled in the case, brought by the Vulcan Society, the black firefighters' association,
At the time, there were about 350 black firefighters among the 11,500 in the department — a number far short of the African-American presence in other uniformed services, the judge found.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg vehemently opposed the judge's decision, blaming the shortage of black firefighters on the lack of applicants.
But the judge later ruled the city should correct the years of bias by hiring hundreds of black and Latino applicants who had missed out on jobs because of the tests.
He also barred the city from offering jobs to any of the approximately 300 firefighters who passed the exam, and mandated a hiring freeze that has now been in effect for nearly a year. The freeze has forced the city to increasingly rely on costly overtime.
The city has meanwhile rejected proposals to hire new firefighters suggested by the judge, slamming them for involving race-based quotas.
The case is still ongoing, with several motions pending, a spokeswoman for the city's Law Department said.
In the meantime, hundreds of men and women’s lives have been in limbo.
Brooklyn’s David Cargin, now 29, had qualified for a class that had been set to start in Jan. 2009, but was canceled before it began.
"Everything just fell apart," he said. "We had that chance but it was taken away from us. All we’re asking is for another opportunity to be put in our hands."
He said that, as an African American, the wait has been especially hard, since he agrees with the premise of the suit that the old test was unfair.
"It’s been very ironic because, on one hand, we’re being told we’re being discriminated against and weren’t on a level playing field with everyone else.
"But we still scored in the top percentage of everyone who tested, so it’s definitely a very unique situation for a lot of the minority candidates," he said, adding that while he wants hiring to resume, he wants it to be done right.
"The FDNY has a legacy that you’re going to be part of," he explained.
Brooklyn’s Ahyende Sandy, 30, is in the same boat.
He said he and others "put our heart and body and soul on the line," to apply for the job and want the chance to apply again.
Growing up in Crown Heights, he said, there were no black firefighters around to serve as role models and that getting another chance would be "life changing."
"I can be the person that wasn’t there for me growing up, representing firefighters in my community," he said.
Upper West Sider Rebecca Wax, now 29, also sat the test in 2007 after months of preparation and was devastated by the delay. She urged the council to support the bill.
"I want nothing more than to be a New York City firefighter," she testified. "Unless this bill is passed and passed quickly, I’ll never have another chance."
Committee members at the hearing were clearly touched.
"It’s unfair," said Upper Manhattan City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who said the city is in desperate need of new firefighters to bolster its ranks.
But even if those affected by the bill are given permission to re-apply, there's still no word on when the city might hire again.
"Right now we’re still in a holding pattern," Marc LaVorgna, a spokesman for the mayor, who supports the legislation, said.
A second hearing on the bill is scheduled for Thursday at 10 a.m.