NEWARK, N.J. – Isaac Feliciano has waited to become a firefighter since he was a child. Now 33, he figures he can wait another month or so until state authorities determine whether an amputated limb should prevent him from realizing his dream.
"Just another bump in the road," Feliciano said Wednesday after emerging from a 20-minute hearing before three doctors who will make a recommendation to the state Merit System Board. But he conceded, "Every night I'll be thinking about it."
Although Feliciano played high school football and baseball, and participates in Paralympic competitions, his effort to become a firefighter in his hometown of Paterson was thwarted when the city's medical consultant ruled he was not "physically capable."
That determination came after Feliciano passed a written exam and finished 103rd among over 615 candidates in the daunting physical test, which included pulling a hose and carrying a dummy while wearing a weighted vest, said his lawyer, William J. Maniatis.
Meanwhile, amputees serve as firefighters around the nation and world, including several in New Jersey.
The case has attracted widespread attention, appearing in newspaper and broadcast reports.
"I see that it's just not about me," Feliciano said.
He was followed into the hearing room by reporters, photographers and television cameras, but the media then were told to wait outside. The medical panel is an advisory panel and not subject to the open public meetings requirements, said George R. Laufenberg, a spokesman for the state Department of Personnel, which includes the Merit System Board.
The doctors will send their recommendation in about a week, and some weeks after that the Merit System Board will make a public decision, Laufenberg said.
Feliciano and his lawyer believed they made a good impression on the medical panel.
"We discussed the fact that the (Paterson) doctor's conclusion was not supported by medical evidence," such as a strength or flexibility test, Maniatis said.
His client took another approach. "I was just trying to read their body language," Feliciano said. "I think I got positive feedback from them."
Paterson said it cannot hire Feliciano without clearance, but if the board rules he is fit "the Paterson Fire Department would welcome him as a member," Paterson Mayor Jose "Joey" Torres said in a statement this week.
Feliciano, has harbored his ambition since age 3 1/2, when a firefighter pulled him from a closet during a fire at his home. By age 6, gangrene from spinal meningitis claimed his left leg below the knee.
He now works at Cingular Wireless, training other sales representatives. He said he would not mind the pay cut as a rookie firefighter.
"Being a firefighter is the ultimate way to give back to your community," he said.
He has no doubt he can handle the rigors of the trade, and noted he has proven he can climb ladders. In addition, his titanium-carbon fiber prosthetic is stronger than a human leg and more resistant to heat and flame.
If rejected by the state board, a civil rights lawsuit based on the Americans with Disabilities Act could be the next step, Maniatis said.
Among the amputee firefighters in New Jersey is John Downs of the Morris Plains volunteer department.
"He can do everything," said the department chief, Michael D. Geary. "Everything from car accidents to car fires, and the like."
Downs, 42, said he began fighting fires as a volunteer with the Madison fire department in 1988, four years after losing his left leg above the knee to a tumor. He said his prosthetic has never given him a problem while responding to several calls weekly.
He is in Feliciano's corner: "I wish him best of luck. I know it's a rewarding career," Downs said.
Why are some amputees working and some, like Feliciano, barred?
The reason appears to be differing interpretations of standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association.
"There is no absolute, uniform systemwide standard for medical eligibility," said Laufenberg, of the state Personnel Department.
Feliciano's struggle resonates with Dave Dunville, director of the Amputee Firefighter Association, a national support group.
"The public needs to learn that the only handicap anyone ever has is the handicap they see in others," said Dunville, who is fighting to return to the volunteer fire company serving Hartland, Mich.
Dunville, 45, had part of his left leg amputated in 2003 when an infection from a broken bone wouldn't abate.
He said he exceeds firefighter fitness standards, and even gets a workout as an assistant manager of a party supply store.
"So for me, it's climbing up and down ladders and carrying packages," some of them weighing up to 120 pounds, Dunville said.
"There are police officers who are amputees, there are firefighters who are amputees, and they're all doing the job," Dunville said. "Not once has a prosthetic limb come off in the performance of their duty."
Dunville estimated that over 400 amputees in the United States are police officers, firefighters or emergency medical technicians. More than 300 are on active duty, of which perhaps one-third are firefighters, Dunville said.
"And these are just the folks we know about," he said.