The Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of Black firefighters, has successfully won a leg in the fight for fair hearing practices within the fire department. The Vulcan Society was created in 1940 to support Black firefighters and eliminate discrimination in the fire department. Even now, they still strive for equality.

Due to a complaint filed by the Vulcan Society, the Fire Department of New York was charged last Thursday of racially discriminatory hiring practices. The Vulcan’s victory against the FDNY came on the heels of discriminatory testing and recruitment practices that “unfairly excluded hundreds of qualified people of color from the opportunity to serve as New York City firefighters,” United States District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis ruled July 22.

“Today, the court holds that New York City’s reliance on these examinations, [issued between 1999 and 2007],” said the judge, “constitutes employment discrimination in violation of title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

“Out of 10 million New Yorkers, the New York City fire department, exam after exam, has consistently been unable to produce a more diversified department,” said John Coombs, a Brooklyn firefighter and president of the Vulcan Society. Coombs quoted stats showing that New York City consists of 27 percent African-Americans–however, only three percent of the city’s firefighters are African-American, which is 369 African Americans. The city consists of 60 percent diversified backgrounds. Rhetorically, Coombs asked, “How is it that the FDNY firefighter ranks are lacking in diversity?”

The FDNY has continuously challenged the Vulcan’s premise that the test would require skills not needed to test a firefighter’s ability, and had a negative impact on Black and Hispanic candidates repeatedly, Coombs said. Finally, on July 22, Judge Garafius ruled in favor of the Vulcan Society, the plaintiffs in the class action suit. “I’m happy with the decision,” said Paul Washington, past president of the Vulcan Society. “The case was so much in our favor that we didn’t even need to go to trial.” “The court found that the city closed the door on over a thousand qualified candidates of color,” said Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) attorney Darius Charney. “This is a tremendous victory that we’ve been fighting towards for over seven years and we applaud the court for recognizing that the FDNY written examination has no bearing in whether or not a firefighter is qualified.”

“This did not appear out of thin air,” said Washington. At a July 23 press conference, in front of City Hall, Washington told the Amsterdam News that discriminatory testing and recruitment practices were “one of the biggest issues” that he had to deal with 10 years ago.

“The fire department has practiced discrimination for a long time. It’s a little more subtle now.” Washington said the fire department has a history of exclusion and using exams that do not measure the skills necessary to be a firefighter because firefighters have to communicate with each other while trying to save lives in a burning building, and not read, write or answer multiple-choice questions that reflect a college entrance exam or an SAT test. Duery Smith, past second vice president of the Vulcan Society, who retired from ladder 136 in Queens, told the Amsterdam News that the NYC school system is one of the worst, and yet people of color are asked to compete on the SAT test with students from Long Island in all the counties where their education is of higher quality.

Smith said “we pass the test but not at a high ranking,” but now with the ruling in which the judge has found that the tests are not a good measurement for the task of being a firefighter, Coombs declared that most of the questions on the exams are irrelevant and biased. “The questions are about firefighting, plain and simple. There is no bias here,” a FDNY official responded. Coombs asked, “How is that accurate when the written exam has no emphasis on firefighter ability, and over one thousand qualified Blacks and Latinos were not hired for the job?” Most of the exam consists of multiple-choice questions, long reading passages and oral exams, said Coombs, rather than the true important aspect, which is the physical exam. Potential firefighters need to be tested for their physical ability rather than their logical ability.

According to the Vulcans, the reading levels on these exams are very difficult. It is almost impossible to pass such a challenging test. Not only are the tests ridiculously hard, but also, to pass the test, one must score 95 percent correct. People from cities with better school systems are more likely to get hired than people in New York City, which has the worst school system in the state.

There are several alternatives to these biased exams. Washington said it’s time that the city took a standard role and took action against these practices of discrimination in the FDNY. He said Bloomberg spent millions of NYC’s taxes to fight this case. The federal class action lawsuit was filed as a result of two Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charges that the Center for Constitutional Rights filed on behalf of the Vulcan Society in 2002, and on behalf of three Black firefighter applicants in 2005. The EEOC reportedly attempted an “informal” resolution with the parties involved in the lawsuit, according to a released statement by the CCR, but the city refused to comply. The Department of Justice then filed a lawsuit against the city as well. “In 2002, the NYC Department of City Planning identified 25 percent of the city’s residents as Black and 27 percent of its residents as Hispanic. At the same time, however, only 2.6 percent of its firefighters were Black and 3.7 percent of its firefighters were Hispanic,” the judge said. “When this litigation commenced in 2007, the percentages of Black and Hispanic firefighters had increased to just 3.4 percent and 6.7 percent respectively.”

Judge Garaufis said those figures boil down to 303 Black and 605 Hispanic firefighters, respectively, out of 8,998. The judge mentioned the case of the New Haven Fire Department, in which the Supreme Court overturned nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s ruling. He said that in the case against the FDNY, the exam “actually had a disparate impact upon Black and Hispanic applicants for positions as entry-level firefighters,” whereas the New Haven case disregarded promotion exams when minorities were found to have failed the test in large numbers.

Representatives for the city have reportedly said that they do not use the exams that were found discriminatory any more, and have beefed up their recruitment efforts of Black and Hispanic people. The Vulcan Society, however, is calling for an oral test, but the judge still has to issue a remedy. They are back in Brooklyn Federal Court in August. Smith said that he had no personal experience of racism in his 20 years on the job. He said it seemed like the younger, white firefighters were the ones giving Black firefighters a hard time, noting that he had older bosses and that after 1975 there was a “dry spell” in recruitment of Black and brown firefighters. Smith said the judge’s ruling would allow “guys that looked like me, my nephews, cousins and decent people like me” to be of service by being a firefighter on equitable terms. The Vulcan Society won a similar lawsuit in 1970s that helped increase the number of Black firefighters, but as Smith hinted, the climb toward equality in hiring practices has been a fight up a steep hill, and not just in New York City but across the United States as well.

In 1987, the discrimination in some firehouses was visibly apparent when a photo of heroic firefighters in a San Francisco publication showed 23 firefighters with the only Black firefighter, Charles Johnson, who had saved nine people from a burning building, while off-duty, airbrushed out of the photo. The firefighter’s legs, however, were still visible, according to a Socialism and Liberation Magazine article from February 2007. The article also pointed out that as early as 2006, the Los Angeles Fire Department awarded a settlement of $2.7 million to a Black firefighter after he was served dog food in spaghetti. Even so, “New York City has the least diverse fire department of any major city in America” compared to Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Boston, according to the released statement by the CCR.

Smith said the “fight is not over” for Black and Hispanic firefighters. He said they “still have to sit down and work out a deal with the city.” “The remedy to the discriminations should be fairer tests,” said Washington. “The city should also spend serious money into recruiting Blacks.” Mayor Bloomberg emphasizes that the FDNY has done a great job on diversifying firefighter ranks, yet the Vulcan Society begs to differ. Neither the mayor nor Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scopetta can claim major improvements towards diversifying the fire department, said Coombs.

“Bloomberg acted poorly since 2002,”said Washington. “We wanted to make changes to the Fire Department. When the Justice Department brought the lawsuit to court, he still acted poorly.” “I find it quite challenging for the FDNY to diversify its firefighter ranks when the organizational structure of the FDNY lacks diversity,” says Coombs. “Of the 90 positions/titles in the organizational structure, there are less than nine people of color.” A speaker at the press conference said, “The situation is appalling. There is no excuse for the city’s failure.” “Racial discrimination is still alive and well in our institutions,” said Washington. And that is why it must be eliminated–one step at a time.”