It was a great day for the FDNY as they welcomed their most diverse class in department history last week.
It was an even better day for the fraternal order of Black firefighters, known as the Vulcan Society. After years of court battles with the city, which ended with federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruling that the FDNY discriminated in their hiring practices, they finally saw the fruits of their labor. For the firefighters of color, the ceremony marked a milestone, a passage into one of the city’s most admired institutions that, in the past, had been reserved mostly for white males.
The class of 242 probationary firefighters joined friends and family at their graduation ceremony at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn. Sixty-two percent of the graduates were firefighters of color, 24 percent Black and 36 percent Hispanic. Four were women.
“I have been waiting for this day for a long time. To see all of these Black and Brown faces in the FDNY is really overwhelming,” Capt. Paul Washington, former president of the Vulcan Society, told the Amsterdam News. “I was especially happy for the family members. They will now have a brother, husband, a mother or father who has a great job.”
Washington was the FDNY employee who raised the original Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint about the department’s racial discrimination.
He said the lawsuit could have been avoided if Mayor Michael Bloomberg would have worked with the Vulcan Society in 2002. The mayor was shown a report from the EEOC that indicated that the exam pass rates for whites was 91 percent and 61 percent for African-Americans. He was asked if he ever talked to anyone about that “very large discrepancy.”
“We understand that the mayor inherited this problem, but he had the opportunity to fix it if he would have approached the problem with an open mind,” Washington noted.
The Vulcan Society sued the city. Garaufis, who also oversaw a case in 2010 against the FDNY, deemed the entrance exam as favorable to whites over Blacks and Hispanics.
The Vulcans won the lawsuit. The judge called on the city to reassess how it recruited, hired and employed Black and Hispanic firefighters. He said that the only reason the court made a decision to end the city’s discriminatory practice was because “a coalition of Black New York City firefighters [Vulcan Society] and President George W. Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, decided the only recourse was to sue the city of New York to make it stop,” Garaufis wrote.
He also found that 186 Blacks and 107 Latinos who took the ’99 and ’02 tests might have made the grade had the process been different. He required that the city contact those applicants and give them the opportunity to retake the exam, regardless of age.
After the ruling, Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said he was not happy. Bloomberg disputed the judge’s ruling. The city appealed. City attorneys filed a 139-page legal brief, alleging that the judge “injected” personal and “extrajudicial” beliefs into the bitterly fought court battle. They asked the U.S. Court of Appeals to reverse Garaufis’ decision and reassign the case to a “neutral arbiter.”
At the time of the appeal, Councilman Charles Barron, a strong supporter of the Vulcan Society, blasted the mayor for not wanting to ensure an equal employment opportunity for those seeking to join the FDNY. “The FDNY is racist in their hiring. That is clear. For the city to resist anything close to the monitoring and evaluation of their hiring practices is absurd,” he told the AmNews. “We’re talking about the FDNY being 2 to 3 percent Black—that’s ridiculous.”
Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright felt that the city’s appeal was designed to draw attention away from the fact that they were still fighting the integration of the FDNY in the courts.
“After protecting the nepotistic and blatantly racist practices of the FDNY for what equates to an entire mayoral term, it is ridiculous and shameful for the mayor to again stand on the side of ignorance with this bizarre request,” Wright told the AmNews. “The judge is right to be distrustful of this administration and their true commitment to justice and equality. As Judge Garaufis has correctly stated, ‘The city still doesn’t get it,’ and his bombastic request for removal confirms that Mayor Bloomberg ‘gets it’ just about as much as Blacks and Latinos get jobs as firefighters in New York City.”
But the city could not stop what was destined to be a change in the largest fire department in the country. They did manage to stop the court appointment monitor, but they had to change their hiring process.
Bloomberg and Cassano presided over the graduation ceremony. “With the addition of the new graduates, the number of minorities in the FDNY has doubled in the last 12 years,” Bloomberg said. “This diversity means that we are opening our doors to firefighters with a wide range of talents. It’s an essential strength of our city.”
The FDNY now has 7,700 firefighters. Of those, 1,230 are firefighters of color, according to the Fire Department.
“This new class of ‘probies’ is the most diverse in FDNY history and moves us closer to our long-stated goal of a department that better reflects the city we serve,” said Cassano. “Through their hard work and many weeks of training at the Fire Academy, this class has earned the right to be called New York City firefighters.”
Vulcan Society President John Coombs said the fact that 60 percent of the 242 candidates who graduated were people of color was a great improvement. However, while there was a record number that graduated, of the 318 “probies” who entered the academy, 76 (most of them of color) failed to make the grade. “This comes at a time when diversity was won through a court of law. Coincidentally, there was a large number of probies that didn’t graduate in proportion to classes in the past,” Coombs told the AmNews.
“I reserve the right to continue to press the FDNY to see that diversity is important. Make no mistake, I question some of the things that were stated by the mayor and Commissioner Cassano about working toward diversity. They were everything but instrumental. The victory of the lawsuit gave hires the opportunity to take full advantage. I still reserve cause for great celebration,” he added.