The Fire Department’s promotional exams may be the most challenging civil service tests in the city. The guys who take them certainly think so. “The fire exam is definitely the toughest there is, ten times harder than cops or anything else,” Captain Joe Loftus told The Observer recently.
In the past few years, a cottage industry has sprung up to help firefighters study for the exams that allow them to rise through the ranks. Capt. Loftus and a group of his colleagues were at the forefront three years ago when they launched LtQuestions.com, a simple WordPress site that offers fellow firefighters sample tests—16 for only $96.
Unfortunately, LtQuestions.com and similar sites meant to help firefighters better serve the city also appear to be imperiling it at the same time.
Ah, the Internet. It makes life easier, it makes life harder. Like this, hate that. Share baby photos, kiddie porn, revolutionary Tweets, fatwas, bomb plans. All from the convenience of a keyboard.
Convenience is key in our frenetic modern lives, and the same goes for New York’s Bravest. These sites were created to help firefighters study for the various departmental exams that can make or break a career in the department. Along with an officer’s guide and testimonials, the site provides free downloads of the hundreds of books and other relevant study materials.
Since LtQuestions.com appeared, imitators, each with a different study system, have sprung up, as well. All feature a trove of FDNY documents, some 3,000 pages in total, long available at firehouses around the city. Stacked up, the books reach past a stout fireman’s bellybutton—worse than any grad student’s workload.
While these sites are condoned by the Fire Department as useful study aides, all of them publish a number of sensitive documents that would be invaluable not only to would-be brass but also to anyone with the desire to do the city or its residents harm, from a terrorist cell to a disgruntled citizen. Among the documents the site makes available to anyone with an Internet connection are detailed plans and schematics for highly sensitive parts of the city’s infrastructure, the subway system, the airports, the electrical grid, and the sewer and gas systems, to name a few. There is an irony, perhaps, in the fact that such detailed intelligence enables an attacker to strike not only at innocent civilians but also the first responders rushing in to save them.
The Fire Department insists the materials are harmless, and that much of it has been available in various forms for decades. “I’ve asked around, and nobody seems to think there is anything very serious in there,” said FDNY spokesman Frank Gribbons.
But a number of current and former fire, counter-terrorism and city sources with whom The Observer shared the documents expressed concerns that in the wrong hands, they could pose a threat to the city’s infrastructure.
“How much of a threat is it?” asked Professor Joseph King, a counter-terrorism expert at John Jay College. “I think if someone wanted to blow up a subway tunnel, know exactly the longest route, the worst spot, they could find this and use it. Would it give them access to the tunnel? Would it show them the secondary route so they could get everyone who goes in after them, and blow them up, too? I think it could.”
As the information age continues to jostle with the post-9/11 mindset, as frivolous cartoons and videos lead to riots around the world, as planes are grounded and shoes removed because of nonexistent bomb scares, just how cautious should the city be? What is the right balance between access and anxiety?
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.
One thing all these sites have in common is a reliance on the FDNY manuals.
Like LtQuestions.com, FireTestTaking.com has a revolving bank of questions, sort of virtual flashcards, which cost $24.95 a month, or $150 for the year. Randomized tests of 10, 15, 25, 50 or 100 questions are available. As on LtQuestions.com, a log-in is required only to access the tests themselves, not the documents behind them, and anyone can sign up for a log-in.
Fire C.A.P.T.A.I.N. NYC is arguably the most advanced. Short for Computer Aided Promotional Tools with Advanced Integrated Networking, the ice-blue, Tron-like site provides access to a special program designed by two tech-savvy firemen, captains Vincent Moore and Alan Macleod. Among the options the program offers is “multicolor highlighting, in-line notes, ‘hot buttons’ (user-defined highlighted keywords).” There are also the standard practice tests with progress tracking and an online chat function.
“I hate studying!” Mr. Macleod wrote in an article Fire Engineering magazine in March, explaining his inspiration for the site. “It’s the reason I’m not an astronaut.”
A new web-based app for mobile users just launched.
The vast majority of information contained on these sites is mundane. They all deal with some aspect of the job, from the routine (“EV18 Hoist Portable Ladder to the Roof,” “Haz-Mat 7 Decontamination Procedures”) to the obscure (“AUC 207a12 Airtrain System,” “306 ‘Fire Cap’ Children’s Assistance Program”).
Still, plenty of sensitive material is available. For instance, the sites publish access plans and rescue procedures for the subway tunnels running under the East River. There are maps of gas pipes, including those serving JFK Airport. Remember the Buckeye Pipeline, which a group of would-be terrorists tried to attack in 2007? It’s there, along with maps of the Con Edison facilities at Hunter’s Point, also served by a gas line.All a click away, without even a credit card or a background check.
Capt. Loftus said his team notified the Fire Department before starting his site. Capt. Macleod told The Observer he had not directly reached out, but people knew about it. No one at FireTestTaking.com could be reached.
So how threatening is this material? “It’s out there,” Captain Macleod said. “You think we’re handing it over to them in an easier fashion? I don’t really think so. Maybe we could insist on some proof that you’re a firefighter.”
Professor King had a simple solution. “Really, all these guys need to do is put it behind a paywall,” he said. “Maybe they could require these guys’ FDNY PINs, make sure they work for the department.”
Capt. Loftus, while appreciating the gravity of the situation, chuckled at the idea.
“Behind a paywall?” he said. “What’s that gonna do, the guy can still get it. I’ve got $96 from a terrorist, though. I’d feel terrible for that. Honestly, that never crossed my mind. We just thought of the access, because you know, the books are all over the place. Any guy could go buy the books. You want the books, to buy them, you don’t have to show an ID to buy them. It’s like a hundred bucks.”
“You know, the way I look at things, where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Peter Romaniuk, a fellow at the Center on Global Terrorism Cooperation and a professor at John Jay stressed the difficult balancing act faced by governments in this day and age. “Generally in this field, people acknowledge it’s impossible to reduce this vulnerability to zero,” he said. “That would impose constraints on a society that a democracy wouldn’t want to tolerate. The trick becomes managing the risk, and certainly the record in terms of attacks is quite good in the post-9/11 period.”
This is the position of the Fire Department. Mr. Gribbons, the FDNY spokesman, recalled the days when people used to photocopy the materials to save on them. He also noted that the department has shared its study materials with other departments. The message was, this information is everywhere, it is out there, not just online. If someone wants it, they can get it.
Not that any of this poses any real threat in the eyes of the department. “These books, as far as I know, there’s nothing top-secret in them,” he said.
That said, when The Observer contacted Mr. Gribbons a second time to see if anything had been done, he said attorneys were asking the sites to remove the materials (which, after all, belong to the city). A day later, though, the information was still online. To borrow the phrase, is this a case of familiarity breeding complacency?
“It’s a trade-off,” Professor King said. “You want your firefighters to know this stuff, but that also means the information is out there for other people to use.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that with a 60 out of 100 on a sample test, The Observer would have been lucky to have made the rank of sergeant. There is no such rank in the Fire Department. We regret the error.