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Judge rejects firefighters’ bid to keep promotional exam scheduled for Saturday

Firefighters in Massachusetts who are aiming to get promoted may have to wait until March, after a Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that the state can cancel an annual exam scheduled for this Saturday while it reviews the format of the promotion process.

Suffolk Superior Judge Christopher P. Belezos on Thursday rejected a request by several Boston firefighters to keep Saturday’s test as scheduled, saying the opportunity to take the exam had been delayed but not denied. The Boston firefighters said they were acting to represent themselves and others like them who would be affected by the delay of the test.

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Lawyers for the firefighters did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The state Human Resources Division pulled the firefighters exam after another Suffolk Superior Court judge in a previous hearing found that the near-identical promotional process used to determine who becomes a police sergeant in Massachusetts is racist and impractical and adversely impacted Black and Hispanic candidates.

State officials say they will follow the court’s directive to restructure the police promotional exam as well as the firefighters’ exam, because of its similarities. The state said it is working to offer a new exam in March.

Several Boston firefighters who filed a class-action lawsuit sought a preliminary injunction, saying that delaying the annual exam would cause irreparable harm to the approximately 880 people who had signed up and paid to take it.

Belezos on Thursday rejected that request, saying that state law directs officials to offer the exam, but does not set a schedule.

“To suggest that [the Human Resources Division] should be forced to administer what it believes is a defective test and deal with the potential consequences at some future date is both ineffective and irrational,” Belezos wrote in his five-page ruling. “Such a course of action will inevitably lead to further delay, confusion, and litigation.”

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Belezos added: “The Court cannot envision how the public good is served by administering a test which is constructed in a demonstrably flawed manner, and about which there are strong indicators to suggest the potential for unreliable results.”

At a show-cause conference held by the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission Thursday, Michele Heffernan, general counsel for the Massachusetts Human Resources Department, said the findings that the police examination was discriminatory were “distressing” and required time to remedy, making a postponement of the exam necessary.

“We understand our decision is difficult to accept and unpopular, but it is one that we need to follow through with,” Heffernan said.

Time was necessary to “create a new exam format” that would comply with the law, she said.

A lawyer representing the firefighters, Leah M. Barrault, said they are not against “a fair test.”

“Our focus is on the people that are relying upon these exams, the firefighters, the fire chiefs, the fire departments, and making sure that things are done in a fair manner,” she said.

Barrault said the disruption of the exam schedule, beyond Saturday’s test, was particularly concerning.

“We continue to be disappointed the time frames can’t move up,” Barrault said. “We still have reservations, a lot of people are concerned.”


Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.