When little Black girls in the city dream of becoming something great, will they be able choose being a firefighter? Firefighter Regina Wilson of Brooklyn is helping to make the role of firefighter a real aspiration for Black girls in the city.
Last month at Brooklyn College, Wilson, who is now the first female president of the Black firefighters’ organization, the Vulcan Society, was on a panel to discuss the plight of Blacks and women breaking through the Fire Department’s institutionalized racist and misogynistic system. Joining her were two other Vulcan Society members, Capt. Paul Washington and Lt. Michael Marshall.
The panel noted that despite the year being 2015, the value of Blacks and women in the Fire Department continue to be undermined at every step of the process—from recruitment to firehouse placement.
“Now you have Black firefighters walking into a firehouse where it’s predominantly white males, so you have this atmosphere, these cultures and traditions that you’re not used to, because these aren’t your cultures and traditions, so you’re trying to get yourself involved with a whole system of people with privilege who don’t want you here, don’t think you should be here and will, in some ways, let you know that you don’t deserve to be here,” said Wilson.
Last week, 295 probies graduated into the FDNY. Four were female: one was Black, two were Latino and one a white female, bringing the number of female firefighters to 49.
Black women deserve, just like anyone else, to have the American dream. Being a firefighter is a sure way to obtain a middle-class existence. For many skilled Black women in the inner city who come from low-income families, it is a chance to break the cycle of poverty.
“Even if we take color and gender out of it, you have to think about everybody who deserves an opportunity. When an opportunity for a job is taken away from you just based on the fact that you’re African-American, Hispanic, Asian or that you’re a woman, that’s the problem,” said Wilson.
Wilson recalled being called in to help a woman who was having a miscarriage in a bathroom. In another incident, the Fire Department was called to the home of a Hasidic Jewish woman. Because of her religious beliefs, she refused to be touched by the male firefighters. Both times, at critical life-changing moments, Wilson was there. But what if she weren’t?
The panel said that some recent media coverage citing anonymous sources, presumably from top FDNY officials, have suggested that the FDNY’s efforts to diversify the department—recruiting more Blacks and females over white males—is at the expense of public safety. The implications were clear: Blacks and women are not good enough to protect and serve the public.
“There are some Blacks and there are some women and there are some people of color who are not good firefighters, but there are plenty of white firefighters who are not good firefighters either. There are plenty of white firefighters who are not in shape,” said Washington. “But to just cherry-pick and pick Black women and so on to criticize and put on display as not being able to adhere to the great Fire Department’s standards is a sham. It’s wrong for them to do it, but it’s being done.”
After a court battle, the FDNY was required to recruit women in 1982. For 33 years women have had the right to join the department but still remain underrepresented. In 1919, the first Black firefighter was accepted into the department, yet 96 years later they are also underrepresented.
“We come on with a stigma just being Black, so if you’re a woman and you’re Black, you come on with a double stigma,” said Marshall. “For some reason there are some male firefighters who think they’re not supposed to work with a woman.”
The standards and tests that are being given to the new graduates are new. They are not the same standards that the FDNY has asked of its previous generations, when the department remained completely white. To say that the FDNY is being forced to recruit and hire a more diverse group who are “unqualified” without looking at the changing standards is shortsighted.
“As the job is getting more diverse, all of a sudden these standards appear out of nowhere, and they act like these standards are 150 years old,” said Washington. “That’s not the case.”
Ginger Adams Otis, a reporter and author of “Firefight,” a book that details the harrowing experiences of Black firefighters trying to integrate the FDNY, was also a part of the panel.
“The Department of Sanitation has an entrance exam, and that’s almost 60 percent Black. The Fire Department’s own EMS department is more than 50 percent people of color with a huge a number of women, and women have yet to break 1 percent in the Fire Department,” said Adams.
When it comes to more prestigious uniformed positions Blacks and women are kept at a minimum, with small victories of inclusion that don’t even begin to represent the demographics of the city we now live in.
“The FDNY is a textbook example of institutional racism and how it survives over generations even after society around it is shifting and changing some of its norms, at least on the surface. The Fire Department exists within this ‘color-blind system’ called the civil service system, but it was designed in the late 1800s,” said Adams. “It was designed for a white majority.”