Nearly a year after a city doctor said an amputated leg was the only reason Isaac Feliciano wasn't fit to become a firefighter, he got clearance to pursue his boyhood dream.
A state panel on Wednesday ordered that Feliciano be allowed to enter training as a Paterson firefighter despite losing his left leg below the knee as a young child.
His hometown department had balked at hiring the amputee in April when the city's medical consultant ruled Feliciano was not "physically capable."
Feliciano said he was "excited and relieved" at the ruling from the state Merit System Board, which accepted the findings of a state panel of doctors.
"It's a much bigger issue than myself," Feliciano said. "I feel like I'm responsible to see this through for others."
Deputy Fire Chief Scott MacGilvray said the department supports the decision.
‘Testament to his persistence’
The department has "already begun networking with other fire departments, in an effort to obtain enrollment for Mr. Feliciano in the next available academy," MacGilvray told reporters outside fire headquarters at a news conference called by Feliciano and his lawyer.
In a statement, Mayor Jose "Joey" Torres said, "The hiring of Mr. Feliciano would be a testament to his persistence and dedication, and a realization of a lifelong dream to serve the city of Paterson."
If he earns his badge, Feliciano would join amputees around the nation and world, including several in New Jersey, who serve as firefighters.
It was not immediately known when the next fire academy class will convene. Some of the people who passed the qualifying tests last year along with Feliciano have since completed training and are already at work, said his lawyer, William J. Maniatis.
Feliciano would get retroactive seniority after completing the academy and his probation period, the Merit System Board ordered.
Feliciano said he has harbored his goal 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 part of his left leg.
Despite that, Feliciano, 33, played high school football and baseball, and participates in Paralympic competitions.
His ambition to fight fires, however, was thwarted by the city's doctor in April because of his artificial leg.
Feliciano has no doubt he can handle the rigors of the trade and noted he has proven he can climb ladders.
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, Maniatis said. In addition, his titanium-carbon fiber prosthetic is stronger than a human leg and more resistant to heat and flame.
Feliciano currently works at Cingular Wireless, training other sales representatives. Though becoming a rookie firefighter would mean a pay cut, he called being a firefighter "the ultimate way to give back to your community."