New York City Women, Firefighters of Color Continue Decades-Long Battle To Integrate the FDNY

Ari Paul August 31, 2015

In a city that is nearly two-thirds people of color, only 14 percent of New York City firefighters aren't white. (Flickr / PittCaleb)

While much of New York City’s polit­i­cal class was on vaca­tion in the last week of August, the head of the city’s main fire­fight­ers union, Steve Cas­sidy, blast­ed a mod­est pro­gram meant to advance minori­ties to the head of the department’s hir­ing line.

Invok­ing the doc­trine of fair­ness, Cas­sidy told the New York Dai­ly News, It’s obvi­ous this deci­sion is being done on a polit­i­cal basis, who is going to pick these 100 cadets who will almost cer­tain­ly be guar­an­teed a fire­fight­er job? Who picks them, who decides?” adding, This is mak­ing things worse, not bet­ter, and it’s under­min­ing civ­il service.”

Last March, it seemed that New York’s new may­or, Bill de Bla­sio, was on course to bring the Fire Depart­ment of New York (FDNY), where peo­ple of col­or are vast­ly under­rep­re­sent­ed on the force (only 14 per­cent of the department’s 11,000 fire­fight­ers were peo­ple of col­or in 2014, accord­ing to the Dai­ly News), in line with oth­er more diverse fire depart­ments around the coun­try — and the city’s own demo­graph­ics (accord­ing to cen­sus data, only 33.1 per­cent of the city was non-His­pan­ic white in 2011). The city set­tled a law­suit with the Vul­can Soci­ety, an orga­ni­za­tion of black fire­fight­ers that has fought since the 1940s to inte­grate the depart­ment, that grant­ed $98 mil­lion in back pay and ben­e­fits to black and Lati­no can­di­dates who believe they were sub­ject­ed to dis­crim­i­na­to­ry entrance exams in 1999 and 2002

The admin­is­tra­tion also agreed to fur­ther mea­sures to diver­si­fy the ranks, includ­ing hir­ing a chief diver­si­ty offi­cer giv­ing Fire Acad­e­my grad­u­ates who have city res­i­den­cy pri­or­i­ty in appoint­ments to fire com­pa­nies. The Vul­cans have long argued that part of the rea­son the depart­ment has stayed mono­chrome is because whites come into the depart­ment from the suburbs.

All the efforts by groups like the Vul­cans to have more non-whites and women have aroused resis­tance among some in the ranks, but even the anti-affir­ma­tive action­ists have tak­en hit. This sum­mer, the leader of the anti-diver­si­fi­ca­tion group Mer­it Mat­ters, Deputy Chief Paul Man­nix, chose to dis­band the group after he was docked 50 days’ pay for leak­ing depart­ment doc­u­ments to the press in an attempt to show that non-white fire­fight­ers were ill-qual­i­fied. The depart­ment also forced him to reject $35,000 raised by his sym­pa­thiz­ers to make up for his pay loss.

The Chief-Leader, the gov­ern­ment work­force week­ly news­pa­per in New York, said in an edi­to­r­i­al, The fact that such leaks were not prof­fered — or at least not pub­lished in the Post —about white male can­di­dates who were hav­ing trou­ble mea­sur­ing up under­mined the claim that Mer­it Mat­ters’ sole con­cern was uphold­ing FDNY standards.”

While the num­bers could be bet­ter, the Vul­cans say, there are more blacks in the depart­ment than ever. The same is true of women in the depart­ment: just less than 50 work in the depart­ment today, as opposed to just above 20 in 2007.

But for John Coombs, a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Vul­can Soci­ety, these advances are cos­met­ic, and Cassidy’s last offen­sive against change is proof that there’s a long way to go. To be bru­tal­ly hon­est, they’re back to busi­ness as usu­al,” he said of what he char­ac­ter­izes as the department’s unwill­ing­ness to lis­ten to advo­ca­cy groups like the Vul­cans. They’re just doing it with a smile now.”

For starters, he believed that the FDNY’s new­ly appoint­ed diver­si­ty offi­cer wasn’t lis­ten­ing to con­cerns from the Vul­cans for groups rep­re­sent­ing Lati­nos, Asians and females that while the entrance exams are fair­er than in the past — the Vul­cans had said in the past that the writ­ten exams were biased toward peo­ple with fam­i­lies already in the depart­ment, which made keep­ing minori­ties out of the depart­ment a self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy — the Fire Academy’s recruit­ment tac­tics are still fail­ing peo­ple of col­or and women. One depart­ment source not­ed that in the acad­e­my, after cadets have passed phys­i­cal and writ­ten exam­i­na­tions, whites fail out of the med­ical exam at a rate of 12 per­cent, while blacks fail out at a rate of 30 percent.

The num­bers are improv­ing, but my bot­tom line is that it’s not enough to say we let in 10 women, but you’re going to fail three,” Coombs says.

Sarinya Srisakul, pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Women Fire­fight­ers, says the de Bla­sio admin­is­tra­tion has been more recep­tive to her group, and has con­sult­ed with the US Army to remake the Fire Acad­e­my to being both non-dis­crim­i­na­to­ry. It’s not per­fect, but it’s on the way,” she said. She also hailed the end of Mer­it Mat­ters, but she not­ed that the gen­der gap is still large, not­ing that 2,000 women took the last exam, 19 were hired and four were in the acad­e­my. We have a long way to go,” Srisakul says. 

For her, the biggest prob­lem is chang­ing the fire­house cul­ture. The more progress made in racial and gen­der diver­si­ty, the more white, male fire­fight­ers will denounce the changes and say that increased diver­si­ty is only the result of low­er­ing stan­dards. It’s a good old boys club,” she says. The purist form of racism and sex­ism is the idea that any any per­son that does­n’t look like me who achieves what I achieve is tak­ing some­thing away from me.” 

Cassidy’s harsh words came as no sur­prise to Coombs. In his esti­ma­tion, Cassidy’s union, the Uni­formed Fire­fight­ers Asso­ci­a­tion (Local 94 of the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Fire­fight­ers), has always been against [diver­si­ty] in some form or anoth­er. … They were against women com­ing into the depart­ment. They’re against every­thing. It’s their mantra.”

In the past, Cas­sidy has called for the depart­ment to hire more recruits out of the mil­i­tary as well as high school ath­let­ic depart­ments, on the idea that it would lead to a more diver­si­fied hir­ing pool with­out under­cut­ting qual­i­ty. But the union’s oppo­si­tion to the recent law­suit as well as efforts to give pri­or­i­ty to New York City res­i­dents in the hir­ing process has put the union at odds with many pro­gres­sive city politi­cians who have stood with the Vul­cans in past fights like the push for fund­ing for health treat­ment for 911 respon­ders. The diver­si­ty issue has put the fire­fight­ers union in the same con­ser­v­a­tive cor­ner that the police unions often find them­selves. (The UFA also endorsed Pres­i­dent George W. Bush in 2004.)

His­tor­i­cal­ly, the union has been about main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo,” says Gin­ger Adams Otis, the author of Fire­fight: The Cen­tu­ry-Long Bat­tle to Inte­grate New York’s Bravest. She says the union has long jus­ti­fied its posi­tions on the grounds of mer­i­toc­ra­cy. Their posi­tion is, you take the test and if you score high enough, you get hired.”

The ten­sion between the Vul­cans and the UFA isn’t new, Otis says, but there is one lev­el of agree­ment. The Vul­cans and oth­er rank-and-file advo­ca­cy groups have been able to be so out­spo­ken on all issues — whether with­in the union or beyond it — because the union is strong enough to pro­tect them from man­age­ment retaliation.

They’ve been able to be vocal advo­cates and real gad­flies,” she said. It’s giv­en them tremen­dous protections.”

Ari Paul has cov­ered pol­i­tics for The Nation, Vice, The Guardian, Dis­sent, Jacobin, Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca and many oth­er outlets.
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