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The Detroit Fire Department is taking a big step forward in proposing new criteria for promotions. Rather than basing promotions strictly on seniority, the city wants a new labor contract that makes time on the job just 45 percent of the consideration.

Eliminating much of the emphasis on seniority, as Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has suggested, is a step in the right direction. An even better solution would be to base promotions entirely on merit and competence. That’s the way it usually works in the private sector, and city employment practices should be no different.

Most fire departments in big cities throughout the country have already shifted to a mix of merit, tests and other criteria for promotions.

Detroit should come in line with the modern era. A merit-based formula would better ensure the department has the best leadership at all levels.

The old system of moving firefighters up the ladder with little regard for skills or performance has bred mediocrity, complacency and made some officers feel entitled to promotions they haven’t earned.

Seniority-based promotions have also slowed diversity efforts over the years. Loosening the formula for promotion will allow it to hire and promote the best qualified candidates, not just those who started on the job the earliest.

The union is balking at the idea. And it does rub against the tradition and fraternity of the 1,200 members department. But firefighters should appreciate the effort to provide them with better leadership and with more merit-based opportunities that can come along earlier in their career.

The new formula would still give heavy weight to experience, as it should. There are skills learned over time, particularly in a job with such high risk and danger.

But while seniority should inform promotion decisions, it shouldn’t be built into a rigid formula. Some people learn and obtain skills faster than others.

Other criteria would include education, testing and work record at Detroit and other departments. These criteria would allow the department to hire and task the best qualified with leading. By comparison, Detroit’s police department has required testing as a consideration for promotion for almost 20 years.

The move is part of the overhaul of city services throughout Detroit. In fact, the seniority-based promotions were particularly cited as a reason the department can’t progress in the city status report provided to the Financial Advisory Board.

Other city departments have had to make changes, some more drastic than what’s being proposed for firefighters, to fit the realities of bankruptcy and a new Detroit.

The fire department’s first priority should be ensuring it has men and women on the job who are best qualified to serve Detroit’s residents and effectively lead others, not rewarding those who simply stick around.

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