Black Firefighter Recruits Continue Struggle To Diversify The New York Fire Department

The Fire Department of New York, one of the largest firefighting forces in the entire world, has struggled to recruit, hire and retain firefighters of color.

There have been lawsuits and pressure put on the city and the department, but only about 3 percent of the FDNY's force is black, a persistently low number in a city with a black population of more than 3 million.

But things in the department are slowly changing, thanks in part to the Vulcan Society, an organization of black FDNY firefighters who have led the charge in trying to change the face of the department.

This week, the group secured yet another victory. A judge had already deemed that the city and the department had for decades systematically denied blacks, Latinos and women entry to their ranks. The tests used during the hiring process were racially biased, courts determined, and the city was forced to develop a new test, which will be introduced for the first time in February.

John Coombs, the president of the Vulcan Society, said recent recruiting efforts have seen more minority applicants applying to the FDNY than at any point in recent memory, some 19,000 to 20,000 of them, which represents upward of 21 percent of the entire applicant pool. Of the 4,414 applicants who have not completed the application process, more than 2,000 of them are black.

The drop-off, Coombs said, is the result of an unwelcoming, unfamiliar culture that has not nurtured relationships in the black and Hispanic communities.

"We know that countless others, white men in particular, have family, neighbors and relatives on the force. For them this is commonplace, and they usher them into the department," Coombs said. "History has shown us that when the Vulcan Society has reached out to applicants in the past, we find out that they get discouraged because they don't know anyone on the force or they don't have anything to relate to. That's where we can step in."

Coombs called the fight to get more minorities well-paying, stable jobs like those with the FDNY, "the civil rights fight of our time."

The pilot program approved by the court-appointed monitor authorizes recruiters with the Vulcan Society to receive a list of black applicants whose applications are incomplete, many Coombs said because they have not completed the fee waivers or haven't paid the application fees. After visits to applicants' homes and conversations with recruiters, the group will have to report back to the monitor on what, if any, progress has been made. Presumably, if the effort is a success, the group will be authorized to continue to beat the bushes, Coombs said.

The city's lawyers have objected the decision.

According to reports, the department's recruitment office does follow up on its own, including phone calls. In a letter filed with the court, the city argued that door-to-door outreach could be a breach of applicants' privacy.

Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis, the judge presiding over the case, has ruled that "the evidence shows that white firefighter candidates are significantly more likely to have friends or family members in the FDNY maintaining contact with them and encouraging them to persevere through FDNY's inordinately long hiring process."

Black firefighters, he said, "are significantly less likely to have similar informal support mechanisms available to them because of the city's history of discriminatory testing procedures."

The next exam is scheduled for Feb. 27. The new test is expected to cost the city more than $3.3 million to develop and administer, officials have said in recent reports.

In 2007 the Department of Justice joined the Vulcan Society in a lawsuit against the city, over complaints that the FDNY had used racially biased testing in its hiring, as well as other illegally and intentionally discriminatory practices. Then in 2009 and 2010 a judge issued rulings that found the city had discriminated against black and Hispanic applicants; in August, a judge began considering remedies, including a court-appointed master to oversee the department.

The department and the Vulcan Society have increased their minority recruitment efforts over the summer and fall. They canvassed high schools in black and Latino neighborhoods and hit the local airwaves with ads the radio. The efforts brought more applicants of color to the table, but until the results of the test are in, it's impossible to know what impact these changes are having on the department.

"Although some will stand on the sideline and say, 'Look what they are doing for the blacks,' whites do it without ever saying it," Coombs said. "We don't have solid numbers of black people, Hispanics, Asians and women in the department for a reason. We have to take measures that work to ensure that the diversity that we have fought for becomes a reality."