A Fire Department That Reflects the City it Serves

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

More than 40 years ago the Vulcan and Hispanic Societies filed a lawsuit against the New York City Civil Service Commission charging that the New York City Fire Department’s (FDNY) hiring practices were discriminatory.

This action was among the first of many attempts over the years to use litigation, policy change, and public pressure to address de facto discrimination inside an institution that a Federal District judge in 2009 fittingly described as “a stubborn bastion of white male privilege.”

Some may remember that the 1973 lawsuit produced the “1 in 3” rule which stipulated that the FDNY hire one minority applicant for every three non-minority candidates hired. A new written exam that did not discriminate against blacks and Latinos was also ordered.

Yet, within three years the city abandoned the hiring ratio rule. It was replaced with new hiring procedures including a required cognitive examination, college credits, a driver’s license, and certification as a first responder. These changes torpedoed the pool of qualified minority candidates instead of enlarging it.

Over the ensuing years the fight to diversify the ranks of the FDNY so it better reflects the city it serves has been long and contentious. While other city agencies, most notably the New York City Police Department, have recognized the advantages of a more representative workforce and committed to bringing in more minorities, the FDNY has historically resisted change.

This sorry history may explain why Mayor de Blasio—who came into office pledging to create a more equitable city—recently proposed a new Fire Cadet Program to expand opportunities for black and Latino high school students to be hired as part-time FDNY employees on their way to becoming probationary firefighters. 

Before delving into the merits of the mayor’s proposal, and the opposition to it, let’s take a look back at how we got here after initial good results from the Vulcan and Hispanic Societies’ lawsuits petered out.

United States v. City of New York

Acting on behalf of the Vulcan Society, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission(EEOC) in 2002 alleging that the test for city firefighters was not job-related and had a disparate impact on minorities. The EEOC found that there was probable cause that the city had in fact discriminated.  Michael Bloomberg was mayor, and efforts to settle the dispute failed.  The U.S. Justice Department then entered the fray, filing a lawsuit against the city in 2007 that was very soon thereafter joined by the Vulcan Society.

Despite the statistical evidence and the finding by the EEOC that the charges of discrimination were legitimate, the Bloomberg Administration took a combative posture denying any discriminatory conduct and assailing Nicholas Garaufis, the federal judge assigned to hear the case. Four years after the suit was filed and after a closely-watched three-week trial, Judge Garaufis ruled that the FDNY’s hiring practices were indeed racially-biased and ordered sweeping reforms including a court-appointed monitor.

In the wake of Judge Garaufis’s ruling, the FDNY has made some incremental progress diversifying its ranks.  A chief diversity officer was brought on last year and recruitment efforts have been stepped up. Today, about 17 percent of the city’s uniformed firefighters are minority, including 9.6 percent who are Latino. But this is small-bore: by comparison, the NYPD is nearly 50 percent minority, with a workforce that is thus much more representative of the city’s overall demographic breakdown.

Cadet Program a pipeline to diverse communities 

It would be wrong not to note that the number of FDNY minority recruits has grown. This year’s graduating class of 305 probationary firefighters was 23 percent Latino and 16 percent black. Is this improvement? Sure. Is there more we should do to supplement the recruitment of minority and women firefighters within the FDNY? Absolutely. To that end, the Mayor’s proposed Cadet Program makes a lot of sense.

But not to everyone, apparently.  The Uniformed Firefighters Association and other city organized labor groups have come out against the program. They argue that bypassing the competitive Civil Service test to create the Fire Cadet position and then giving Cadets a promotional test for Firefighter means hiring decisions will be influenced by politics and bias instead of on the merits.

It’s worth reminding those opposed to a program yet to be implemented that the only way we have come as far as we have in terms of minority hiring is because of lawsuits that lasted years and years and cost taxpayers millions of dollars to defend.  Surely we should try other approaches to ending discrimination before we head back to court.

The Fire Cadet proposal includes safeguards against the potential for patronage and political influence, including creation of a review committee comprised of uniform and civilian members of the FDNY who would be responsible for developing cadet selection criteria in consultation with an organizational psychologist. In addition, candidates will be evaluated based on demonstrated mental and physical fitness as well as discipline, leadership, dedication to public service, knowledge of communities, and willingness to work as a team.

No program will be perfect, but apprenticeship training initiatives have in the past proven to be an effective tool for increasing the number of test-readied and qualified applicants. With the goal of improving the racial composition of the FDNY squarely in mind, the Cadet Program will hopefully have similar success.  We should give it try.

Issues Covered

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