David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

For the first time in history, people of color and women make up most applicants for the upcoming New York City firefighter test, which many fire department officials celebrate as an important high-water mark in the long-running battle to diversify city firehouses.

Minorities in the pool of more than 51,000 applicants is notable because the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) is arguably the city government’s last bastion of white privilege. It’s a culture that historically has erected barriers and promoted nepotism, in effect passing the good paying firefighter jobs that require no more than a high school diploma from father to son, uncle to nephew.

It was extremely telling that U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis, who has been vilified for his aggressive oversight of a 2014 hiring-discrimination suit settled by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, extended the application deadline this year so FDNY recruiters could take their message directly to the parents of prospective applicants.

I grew up during the late 1950s in Crown Heights. Our home was a couple blocks from the local firehouse. It was not uncommon to see black lawyers, doctors, business owners and the occasional police officer in that section of Brooklyn. But there were no people of color in the firehouse. A very bizarre fact of life at the time. That was then. To have this same situation 60 years later is a racist outrage.

The way to address it in the FDNY is not by simply growing the pool of minority firefighter candidates. The question is who gets invited to take the physical assessment after passing the test? And then how is the waiting list manipulated by the FDNY so minorities who make the grade are left to languish, never to be called as slots open in the fire academy? These elements of the hiring process inside the FDNY must be reformed.

Training programs significantly improve candidates’ chances of passing the examination by introducing families to firefighters’ culture and preparing recruits for the Candidate Physical Ability Test. In no small coincidence, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defunded a training program aimed at New York City kids modeled by the Dinkins Administration after a summer skills camp FDNY members have operated for years on Long Island, exposing youngsters to stair climbing, ladder raises and hose pulls.

The FDNY dearth of diversity is far worse than it looks because the FDNY headcount includes the Emergency Medical Service, which is comprised of many black, Hispanic and women operators. Of the FDNY’s 10,500 member force, about eight percent are black.

In 2002 the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of black firefighters, initiated a bias complaint challenging the fairness of the 1999 and 2002 Firefighter exams. This prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to file a class action lawsuit, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, on behalf of black Firefighter candidates. The de Blasio Administration settled the case three years ago for $98 million in back pay and several million in lost medical benefits. As part of the settlement, the FDNY stepped up recruitment.

This year the FDNY spent $10 million on its campaign targeting minorities, with banners in all 217 firehouses, social media feeds, posters, flyers, open houses and community visits. However, a close look at past recruitment numbers shows not much has changed. The sheer number of African-American applicants has not increased significantly from 2012, the last time the exam was offered, when blacks made up one of every four candidates.

Still, the city’s firefighters’ union, the Uniformed Firefighters Association, continues to resist, raising its traditional favorite false flag of concern that recruitment campaigns ensure “the most physically fit candidates that can meet the standards are hired.” Think about that for a moment. Of all the stereotypes applied to young people in our community, lack of physical fitness is not one of them. The real issue has been fierce resistance to any effort to correct the racial imbalance within the ranks of the FDNY so that the department reflects the diversity of the city it serves.

In 2015, according to FDNY figures, more than 90 percent candidates of all races invited to take the physical assessment passed. That aside, the needs of the job of being a firefighter are changing. A firefighter’s physical strength is not the lone measure of their success.

As the FDNY has discovered since 2012, the best and fastest way to change the rank-and-file demographics is to encourage EMT’s to apply for the admission to the FDNY academy. EMTs are given fast-track consideration for fire academy admission ahead of other candidates. That has become a pathway to hasten diversity among city firefighters – but it needs to continue, and more focus brought to bear on the back-end of the hiring process, where it’s all too easy to trip up good candidates with bureaucratic blocks.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.