Burn After Reading: How Some Tech-Savvy Firefighters May Be Putting New Yorkers in Danger

Are online FDNY study sites playing with fire?

Study buddies.

Capt. Loftus knows his site and others may be throwing off the grading curve. “I bet there are some guys out there now who are screwed because of us, because they have to work harder now, but that’s good for the city, don’t you think?” noted Captain Joseph Loftus, the creator of LtQuestions.com. He was speaking by phone from his home on Long Island. His daughter could be heard giggling in the background.

LtQuestions.com began improbably enough. Like most firefighters, Capt. Loftus was working with a group of study buddies, preparing for the upcoming exam. He and four other guys would regularly get together, each firefighter responsible for crafting 30 questions for the group. While studying for the captain’s test, Capt. Loftus’ wife, who is Swiss, fell ill. She moved back to Switzerland for a time to receive medical care, and Capt. Loftus and the kids went with her.

“I could barely think about the test, it was so scary, but my buddies, they would still send me the questions over email,” Capt. Loftus said. “When I got back, I realized, even with everything that was going on, I was pretty well prepared. I said, ‘You know guys, I think we’re onto something.’”

Every year, thousands of firefighters compete for a couple hundred spots within the upper ranks of the  New York City Fire Department. They spend months, even years, studying to move from lieutenant to captain, from captain to battalion chief, from battalion chief to battalion commander to deputy division chief to division chief, and so on. “If you’d studied to become deputy chief, you could have been a doctor,” Capt. Loftus said. “That’s eight years of your life right there spent studying in the library.

“I was thinking the Fire Department was one of those family jobs, but if you want to move up the ranks, you can throw that out the window,” he added. “That’s the idea with our site, you can do it at 11 at night from the comfort of your own home.”

The Observer took one of the sample tests and scored a 60 out of 100—not half bad for a first-timer, but we never would have made rank (never mind passing the physical exam). Each week during the study season, a new set of questions appears, written by the site’s administrators, a mix of captains and lieutenants with one battalion chief. The service functions a bit like a virtual study group, even pitting participants against one another, just like on the real exam, where only the top scorers move up.

“Thank you and ALL the LtQ team for your dedication to your students,” reads one testimonial on the site. “LtQ each week let me know where I stood against my competition and how much I’ve learned. More importantly, how much i had to step it up at certain times.” Another: “Thank you all again, from the bottom of my heart, awesome job!!!”

Over the years, there have been a number of brick and mortar civil service academies in the city, most notably the Delehanty Institute, which trained thousands of students a year from the 1920s through the 1980s. More recently, FireTech, with four locations in firefighter-friendly precincts (Howard Beach, Rockland, Beth Page, Staten Island), has become the go-to trainer. But their courses cost hundreds of dollars a 13-class session.

The online route seems to be growing in popularity, though. LtQuestions.com has graduated 700 users, and since the site launched, at least two others have appeared with varying approaches and prices.

“But ours is still the most popular,” Capt. Loftus said.

Burn After Reading: How Some Tech-Savvy Firefighters May Be Putting New Yorkers in Danger