In January 1919, Wesley Williams enlisted as one of the first Black firefighters to serve in the New York City Fire Department (FDNY). On his first day, according to reports, every firefighter of Engine Company 55 in Manhattan requested a transfer because they refused to work alongside him.
Despite hazing, discrimination, and mistreatment, Williams made history in 1938 when he was promoted to battalion chief, the highest rank for a Black firefighter in the nation. Two years later, along with dozens of other Black firefighters, he helped form the Vulcan Society, an association of Black firefighters. Williams eventually served for 33 years in the FDNY before retiring in 1953.
Nearly 70 years later, the FDNY––the largest fire department in the country––is still not even close to being representative of our city’s rich diversity, and reports of discrimination and harassment of Black firefighters and those from other underrepresented groups remain. At a Council hearing just weeks ago, we heard from a Black woman firefighter who is an eight-year veteran about the alleged harassment she has endured.
This reality must change, and we are proud that our most diverse City Council in city history just recently took steps to address this decades-long injustice with several bills that we sponsored.
Currently, 76% of the FDNY’s firefighters are white. Just 8% are Black, 13% are Hispanic, and 2% are Asian. By comparison, 21% of New Yorkers identify as Black, 29% as Hispanic, and more than 14% as Asian.
While those numbers are shameful, the gender disparities in the department are even worse. Only 137 out of the FDNY’s 11,000 firefighters are women, equating to just 1.3% in a city where women make up more than half of the population.
Laura Kavanagh recently made history as the first woman to be appointed FDNY commissioner, an achievement we should celebrate. Yet, it is clear that far more progress is needed to make the FDNY reflective of the city it serves.
Last week, the City Council passed a package of legislation to improve diversity in the FDNY by changing important policies and practices. Our bills, championed by the Council’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus (BLAC), will require the FDNY to implement a concrete plan to recruit and retain women, Black, Latino, and Asian firefighters; finally make firehouses appropriate for a mixed-gender workforce; require ongoing diversity, inclusion, and anti-discrimination training for all FDNY staff; and increase transparency of firehouse demographics and potential equal employment opportunity violations through public reporting.
Taken together, this legislative package represents the most robust effort undertaken by city government in decades to diversify the FDNY. It is no coincidence that solutions to this entrenched problem are finally being advanced by a historically diverse and first women-majority City Council. Passing these bills marks an important step, and we are clear that continued efforts and diligence will be required.
Diversifying our FDNY workforce is critical to our city and will only succeed with sustained progress. Accountability will be essential, and the Council has an important role to play in monitoring the progress of these efforts and their outcomes through our oversight.
The dedication, sacrifice, and heroism of New York’s Bravest, who protect New Yorkers and save lives every day, is unquestionable. Firefighters are essential public servants, and they always deserve our respect and admiration. But for too long, exclusionary, discriminatory, and racist practices have shut out women and communities of color from accessing opportunities to become a firefighter in New York City.
These opportunities are pivotal to providing our neighborhoods with safety and our residents with economic mobility through civil service careers.
The Council is proud to lead efforts for equitable opportunity, representation, and treatment, alongside advocates and firefighters who have been in this movement for decades.
We can honor their efforts, and those of trailblazers like Wesley Williams, by working towards building a future where the FDNY finally looks like the residents of our great city.