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 yesterday after a 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 103d among more than 615 candidates in the daunting physical test, which included pulling a hose and carrying a dummy while wearing a weighted vest, said his attorney, 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 TV cameras, but the media representatives then were told to wait outside. The medical panel is an advisory body and not subject to requirements for open public meetings, 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 attorney believe 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 officials said they could not hire Feliciano without clearance, but if the board rules he is fit, "the Paterson Fire Department would welcome him as a member," Mayor Jose "Joey" Torres said in a statement this week.
Feliciano has harbored his ambition since age 31/2, when a firefighter pulled him from a closet during a fire at his home. When he was 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 proved 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 he is 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 department chief Michael D. Geary. "Everything from car accidents to car fires and the like.
"He's able to climb a ladder," Geary said, although Downs' amputation is above the knee.
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.