For the first time in history, people of color and women make up most applicants for the upcoming New York City firefighter test, which many fire department officials celebrate as an important high-water mark in the long-running battle to diversify city firehouses.
Minorities in the pool of more than 51,000 applicants is notable because the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) is arguably the city government’s last bastion of white privilege. It’s a culture that historically has erected barriers and promoted nepotism, in effect passing the good paying firefighter jobs that require no more than a high school diploma from father to son, uncle to nephew.
It was extremely telling that U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis, who has been vilified for his aggressive oversight of a 2014 hiring-discrimination suit settled by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, extended the application deadline this year so FDNY recruiters could take their message directly to the parents of prospective applicants.
I grew up during the late 1950s in Crown Heights. Our home was a couple blocks from the local firehouse. It was not uncommon to see black lawyers, doctors, business owners and the occasional police officer in that section of Brooklyn. But there were no people of color in the firehouse. A very bizarre fact of life at the time. That was then. To have this same situation 60 years later is a racist outrage.
The way to address it in the FDNY is not by simply growing the pool of minority firefighter candidates. The question is who gets invited to take the physical assessment after passing the test? And then how is the waiting list manipulated by the FDNY so minorities who make the grade are left to languish, never to be called as slots open in the fire academy? These elements of the hiring process inside the FDNY must be reformed.
Training programs significantly improve candidates’ chances of passing the examination by introducing families to firefighters’ culture and preparing recruits for the Candidate Physical Ability Test. In no small coincidence, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defunded a training program aimed at New York City kids modeled by the Dinkins Administration after a summer skills camp FDNY members have operated for years on Long Island, exposing youngsters to stair climbing, ladder raises and hose pulls.
The FDNY dearth of diversity is far worse than it looks because the FDNY headcount includes the Emergency Medical Service, which is comprised of many black, Hispanic and women operators. Of the FDNY’s 10,500 member force, about eight percent are black.
In 2002 the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of black firefighters, initiated a bias complaint challenging the fairness of the 1999 and 2002 Firefighter exams. This prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to file a class action lawsuit, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, on behalf of black Firefighter candidates. The de Blasio Administration settled the case three years ago for $98 million in back pay and several million in lost medical benefits. As part of the settlement, the FDNY stepped up recruitment.