Mayor Eric Adams and the city council took legislative steps this week to solve racial and gender disparities in the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), the largest fire department in the entire country. Despite its size and a discrimination lawsuit decades ago, the FDNY is still overwhelmingly white and male in its uniformed department and higher paid ranks. 

“For decades, advocates and organizations like the Vulcan Society have fought to advance changes that the legislation passed by the Council aims to achieve. Many of our Black, Latino and women firefighters themselves have sounded the alarm about the need for their equal representation and treatment in the department in order to succeed in making the department more diverse,” said Speaker Adrienne Adams. “Their calls were not always heard, supported or considered, but indeed that’s changing.”

Black men have been firefighters in the city since the 1920s and women since the 1980s. In 2007, the Black Vulcan Firefighter Society filed and won a lawsuit against the FDNY for continued discrimination in the exam process towards Black and Latino applicants. The lawsuit wasn’t settled until 2014. Even so the FDNY today is composed of 8% Black firefighters, 13% Latino, 2% Asian and less than 1% women, said the city. 

The legislation aims to address recruitment issues of firefighters of color and women, confront exclusionary practices, and require more transparency on the demographics of firehouses through public reporting. Electeds also plan to “retrofit” firehouses with long awaited upgrades to serve a mixed gender workforce and to require ongoing harassment training.

FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh, the first woman ever to hold the position, said she has been championing these kinds of changes to the department over the course of her career. “I have said this over and over since I was appointed a few weeks ago, change and tradition can live side by side, and I know that because I have lived it,” said Kavanagh at the signing. “I know that this is an organization that we talk about with tradition, and it certainly has those great traditions. We will always be brave and honorable, but change has also been a fundamental part of our story and of the city’s story. Without change, we would not be here. It is how we have risen from our darkest days.”

At the bill signing, Mayor Adams spoke of FDNY bravery on Nov 5. Four firefighters dangled from a rope 20 stories above ground to save people from a burning high-rise in midtown Manhattan that left 38 injured. 

“No matter who we are in these various places of profession, at one time we were locked out. At one time, we were denied access, and through the change of time, we were allowed to open the doors to all groups and we produced a better product because of that,” said Mayor Adams. “Those firefighters did not worry about their gender, ethnicity or background of their colleagues or the people they were rescuing—they put their lives on the line for their fellow New Yorkers. They trusted each other to get the job done.”

Councilmember Kevin Riley co-chairs the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus and sponsored bills 552-A and 553-A. He said his bills would further support the goal of opening clear measures for transparency and accountability in the FDNY.

“I am honored to stand alongside the mayor and my colleagues at the signing of this legislative package that will transform the lack of diversity and inclusion within the FDNY,” said Riley in a statement. “Today, we make our mark to address generations of systemic disparities within our infrastructure, as well as to create more welcoming and safe workplaces for all New Yorkers.” 

Councilmember Nantasha Williams sponsored bill 560-A, which focuses on producing an annual report on complaints filed with the FDNY’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office (EEO). There’s been numerous firefighters of color and women who complained that their filed EEO reports were ignored or no corrective action was ever taken. “After receiving a number of complaints regarding diversity and discrimination in the FDNY, I was proud to sponsor this bill,” said Williams in a statement.

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about 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:

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