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

We can only hope that City Hall will finally put the New York City Fire Department on a fast-track to end its legacy of bigotry and racism in employment. 

The New York City Council last week introduced a package of legislation aimed at transforming the FDNY to reflect the racial, ethnic and gender makeup of the city’s population.  This elusive goal has not been achieved, despite countless  broken promises, protests, racial scandals, lawsuits, consent decrees and settlements.

The five bills deserve quick passage. They represent the most concerted effort by city government in generations to provide equal opportunities at the FDNY.  They focus on the essentials: recruitment and retention, diversity training, improved workplace environment, monitoring and public reporting.

Standing up for righteousness at the FDNY gives all of us a chance to feel proud, and it says something more about the hope of rejuvenating our city — its fragile working class, its politics, its schools, its neighborhoods and its culture.  

With the blessing of Mayor Eric Adams, the new laws take the fight directly to the FDNY firefighters’ unions and other critics of diversifying the department.  The unions have acted as a blockade over the years that may have been embarrassed at times, but never ashamed of supporting a system of inaction, nepotism and unfairness. 

The legislation proposed by City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and the council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus (BLAC) calls for extensive recruitment campaigns, a full-time outreach office to target recruitment and retention of minorities, and requires the FDNY annually to publicly report diversity recruitment figures.  It also calls for firehouse renovations that encourage a mixed-gender workforce.

These laws are exactly what the FDNY needs.  They mirror the yearslong demands of the Vulcan Society, the Black firefighter organization, and live up to the provisions of the 2014 discrimination case settlement.  We also recommend restoration of the Cadet Corps program aimed at minority recruits, started by the late David Dinkins and cancelled by Rudolph Giuliani.  

There are more than 11,000 firefighters and fire officers in the New York Fire Department, making it the nation’s largest. Who comes to mind when you picture a typical firefighter?  If you say a white man, that’s understandable.  The FDNY’s uniformed firefighting division is 77 percent white, 12 percent Latino, 8 percent Black and 2 percent Asian, according to a 2020 report released by the New York City Council.   It is more overwhelmingly white than its police counterpart:47 percent of city police officers are white, the council said.

Like New York, other major fire departments have struggled with minority recruitment, particularly African Americans.  This month, a federal judge in Chicago terminated a 42-year-old court order because minority representation has increased significantly in every promotional title.  While the overall department has become more racially diverse, Black firefighters complain their numbers have, in fact, declined.  Today, the Chicago Fire Department’s nearly 4,800 members has 422 Blacks in uniform, who represent 15 percent of the department, down from 16.5 percent in 2016.  That compares to Latinos, who accounted for 13.5 percent of Chicago firefighters in 2016, but today are the second largest group at 18 percent.

On the other hand, there are success stories like Memphis.  The department started with 12 Black firefighters in 1955 and the number has now grown to 800, who make up 48 percent of Memphis’ uniformed firefighters.  Over the years, they overcame racial barriers like pay and rank disparities, white residents refusing to admit them into their homes,  and segregation within firehouse living quarters.

Mayor Adams, a retired police captain, understands better than most the reputation of the FDNY and the gravity of this moment.  He is well aware that no worthwhile policy objective is attainable without the mayor’s passionate backing.  He’s already sent a loud and clear message that he  brings a new agenda to the FDNY with the appointment of Laura Kavanagh, the first woman acting fire commissioner. 

The mayor and Kavanagh, who last week appointed a new diversity officer, have set the stage to put systems in place that root out the FDNY’s deeply entrenched racism once and for all.  You can bet they will focus on the key elements of recruitment: who gets invited to take the physical assessment after passing the firefighter examination; and improper manipulation of the waiting list.

Just talk of the five City Council bills certainly has the attention of rank-and-file members and the firefighters’ unions, which have been willing to fight change tooth and nail, while laughing cruelly at exhausted minority firefighters who protest their untenable position.

Adams’ policies and appointments have gone a long way in declaring a new day.  In taking on the FDNY, we will learn the practical impact of the new mayor’s vision on what New York is and what it’s becoming.

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

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1 Comment

  1. You, sir, no nothing of firefighting. Positions must be earnes, not given, based on race or sex. If you can’t pass the written exam, you fail. If you can’t pass the physical exam, you fail. Intelligence determines the correct place for a potable ladder, strength raises it.
    I hope no one ever sits at a burning window waiting for a ladder that doesn’t wind up where it supposed to be. Nobody cares who or what puts it there but it must get there.

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