The New York City Fire Department’s halls of power are haunted by racism. It is the city agency most closely identified with years-long resistance to political pressure and court orders to desegregate its ranks. It is city government’s last bastion of white privilege.
For 157 years, the top rungs of the FDNY have been dominated by White men who practically thumbed their noses at protesters, lawsuits, consent decrees, minority recruitment programs and discrimination lawsuit settlements funded by New York City taxpayers.
This is the history that Mayor Eric Adams has an obligation to topple as he launches his search for a new FDNY commissioner. The city needs moral leadership – preferably a person of color or woman FDNY commissioner – that will course-correct the department with an unwavering commitment to do what is right.
First Deputy Commissioner Laura Kavanagh, named interim commissioner, became the department’s first woman leader after Commissioner Daniel Nigro retired last month. She is reportedly a top contender for the job, along with Terryl Brown, the FDNY’s top lawyer and a Black woman.
The mayor understands the magnitude of the problem. Fire department diversity is an issue in cities and counties across the United States, but the situation in the FDNY is by far the worst. He also understands the moment is ripe to chip away at the ridiculous idea minority candidates are manifestly unqualified.
Adams’ election sent a message. Confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson send a message. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin presiding over the American military sends a message. And that message is, women and people of color in senior leadership roles is normal – even expected – and the good old boy’s networks are destined to fall.
To his credit, the mayor has embraced the opportunity to make history. His appointment of five women as deputy mayors, a Black woman as police commissioner, a Black man as schools chancellor, and Latinx leaders to other top positions is a level of diversity that was unimaginable just a few years ago.
The FDNY’s rank and file has never resembled the communities it serves. U.S. District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis, whose rulings forced the FDNY to overhaul its recruiting practices, called the department “a stubborn bastion of white male privilege” whose recruiting roadblocks are a “shameful blight on the record of six mayors.”
Bigotry – against Blacks, Latinos, women and gay people in small and big ways – is tolerated in the firehouse workplace. It dates to Wesley Williams, who in 1919 was Manhattan’s first Black firefighter and the department’s first Black fire chief. The day he reported to Engine 55, every firefighter and supervisor in the company resigned, according to a book by journalist Ginger Adams Otis After braving bare-knuckle fistfights, segregated firehouses and other indignities, Williams eventually rose to the rank of chief.
No one has accused the FDNY of unfairness in the service it delivers to New Yorkers. It has never been suggested that the FDNY refused to rescue Blacks and Latinos, allowed their homes to burn, or choked a citizen to death.
Yet, Williams’ story illustrates how the FDNY’s civil rights problem stems from discrimination in public accommodation. He slept in a basement because white firefighters fought like hell to deny him membership to “their” club. Today’s roadblocks to FDNY diversity are rooted in the taboo of living in the firehouse and working in close quarters with people of color.
While the overt racism faced by Williams has abated in 2022, deep-seated prejudice in the FDNY can only be eradicated by a progressive, forward-thinking commissioner. Certainly, a woman or person of color would bring to the job experiences and an arsenal of truth that has never been heretofore represented in the department’s executive suite.
Other big steps would be embracing the demands of the Vulcan Society, the Black firefighter organization; living up to the provisions of the 2014 discrimination case settlement; and restoring the Cadet Corps program aimed at minority recruits, started by the late David Dinkins and cancelled by Rudolph Giuliani.
Mentoring of women and people of color must be integrated into the recruitment process, despite objections from the FDNY firefighters’ union. Also, aggressively expand summer skills camps run by FDNY members that expose youngsters to firefighter careers.
Finally, the solution is not simply to grow the pool of minority firefighter candidates. The question is, who gets invited to take the physical assessment after passing the test? How is the waiting list manipulated by the FDNY so that minorities who make the grade are left to languish, never to be called as slots open in the fire academy?
All these critical elements of the hiring process can be reformed by a progressive FDNY commissioner.
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 175 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.