Mayor Eric Adams had initially made ‘promises’ to appoint a Black New York City Fire Department (FDNY) commissioner. This week Adams officially appointed Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh, the first woman to hold the position.
Kavanagh replaces former FDNY Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro. Kavanagh was acting fire commissioner for 10 months since Nigro retired in January. The FDNY is made up of more than 17,000 firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, fire marshals, fire inspectors, and civilian personnel. Women have served in the FDNY since 1982 but are rarely seen in leadership positions.
“To say it is the honor of a lifetime is an understatement,” said Kavanagh at her swearing-in. “This story, my story, is a quintessentially New York City story. New York City’s story is fundamentally one of making the impossible possible. Where a shy, introverted, only child could get a one-way ticket to New York City seeking to serve a higher purpose in the best city on earth, and two decades later, find yourself here, leading the greatest fire department in the world through unprecedented times is something that could only happen here.”
Kavanagh has been at the FDNY for several years. Before serving at the FDNY, Kavanagh worked at City Hall as a special assistant to former Mayor Bill de Blasio. She said she will be the type of commissioner that “sees my place at the table as also their own,” speaking to diversity and change in the department.
Adams was delighted with how many “firsts” there were in terms of diverse races and gender appointments in his administration. Louis A. Molina is the first Latino to lead the Department of Correction, Keechant L. Sewell is the first Black woman NYPD Commissioner, the first Filipina deputy mayor in Maria Torres-Stringer, and the first Indian deputy mayor in Meera Joshi, he said.
“We sat there, and we were intentional,” said Adams. “We said we’re going to look for the best, but we are going to open our eyes because the best is among us. The best has just been ignored.”
Adams admitted that while he understood policing and staffing, he was less familiar with the FDNY agency as a whole. He said his appointment of Kavanagh is based on conversations with the chief, the unions, and the men and women at firehouses.
FDNY Lieutenant Dellon Morgan is president of the Black Vulcan Firefighter Society. The Vulcan society filed a federal lawsuit in 2007 against discriminatory firefighter entrance exams crafted to be more difficult for Black and Hispanic applicants.
Morgan confirmed that Adams had met with the Vulcan society about potentially appointing a Black FDNY commissioner after Nigro’s retirement. However, Morgan was accepting of Kavanagh as an alternative choice. He said that while Kavanagh was acting commissioner they had “developed a working relationship” where she made herself more available than previous commissioners.
“People have issues for the same reasons the Vulcans have issues with the department,” said Morgan. “Race, gender. Some people may have issues with her for those reasons but it’s nice that it’s finalized.”
For the most part, women firefighters, including the United Women Firefighters and electeds, rejoiced at having a woman at the helm of the FDNY.
Former Firefighter Anita Daniel, 31, just retired last week from the FDNY technically because of a sustained injury and an “emotionally distressing” work environment. Daniel had an open sexual harassment/assault case against a captain who “slapped her behind” in the FDNY auditorium in July. She had to file numerous complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission but finally resorted to filing a police report to get traction on her case.
Daniel alleges that Kavanagh had seen the video of this incident but still hadn’t reprimanded him yet.
“Do I feel confident that things will get expedited? No, I don’t. Especially, with my own case nothing has really been done to the individual,” said Daniel about Kavanagh’s appointment. “To have a woman in a position of power, yes I love that, I feel great, but with that power, you need to actually do something and not just take on the title.”
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1