A fire department that reflects the city it serves

David R. Jones | 9/24/2015, 1:09 p.m.
More than 40 years ago the Vulcan and Hispanic Societies filed a lawsuit against the New York City Civil Service ...
Black FDNY firefighters

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.

The Bloomberg Administration defended the FDNY’s hiring practices and assailed the judge assigned to hear the case, Nicholas Garaufis. In 2011, 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. 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.