Hiring stalled out at FDNY
City redoing test after diversity suit
NEW YORK — Paul Washington is a New York City firefighter, like his dad and his uncle before him. His brother and some cousins are also on the job.
Family legacies are not unusual in the Fire Department of New York, but the Washingtons are — because they are black. And the nation’s largest fire department remains an overwhelmingly white force.
But a federal lawsuit, a court order, and a revamped application system are offering a glimmer of a future in which the FDNY could become as diverse as the population it serves — a goal other big-city departments have already achieved.
In a city of 8 million, where more than half the population belongs to a racial or ethnic minority, only 9 percent of the 11,200 uniformed firefighters are black or Hispanic.
“This is New York City,’’ said Washington, the catalyst for a federal hiring-discrimination lawsuit against the city. “We’re the most diverse, interesting place in the world, and our other city agencies reflect that, so why shouldn’t the Fire Department?’’
No new firefighters are being hired until a test deemed discriminatory by a federal judge can be redone. In the meantime, the department is paying overtime to bridge a gap of about 300 firefighters.
But Washington — a firefighter for more than 20 years who was president of the Vulcan Society, an FDNY fraternal organization, when he pushed for the lawsuit — wants more than just a new test. In court papers last year, lawyers for the society asked that the exam, now given every four years, be offered more frequently.
They also requested that a professional minority consultant help craft a recruitment program; urged the use of innovative recruiting tools such as Facebook; and suggested bringing back a cadet program.
Washington also wants city high school graduates to get bonus points. Now, firefighters get points for residency, but Washington says it is easy to fake. The city is considering the proposal.
In Los Angeles, 14 percent of the 3,500 or so firefighters are black, and about 30 percent are Hispanic. In Philadelphia, 26 percent are black and 3 percent Hispanic among 2,400 firefighters. Those demographics reflect overall city populations or are more diverse than the city.
In Boston, 37 years after a federal court forced the virtually all-white department to hire one black or Hispanic firefighter for every new white employee, one-third of the firefighters are now nonwhite. But segregation remains within firehouses; a Globe survey last year found that almost half of the city’s firehouses are either 85 percent white or 50 percent nonwhite.
Washington’s family legacy is something he wishes for other black city residents. He filed his complaint about 12 years ago with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The complaint asserted that the exam was rife with SAT-like questions that didn’t adequately test for firefighting skills. The exam is the weightiest factor in determining where a candidate gets on a hiring list.
“This test isn’t proving who’s the best for the job — this test is proving who got a good education,’’ Washington said.
The Department of Justice took up the case and filed a federal lawsuit, and a judge ruled in 2009 in favor of the Vulcan Society and the Justice Department. In a separate decision, the judge said the test was being used to discriminate intentionally.
While it appeals the decision, the city has made significant strides in recruiting minority candidates, an effort it says was not brought on by the legal fight.
“I know firsthand that being a firefighter is ‘the best job in the world,’ and I want all young people to have an opportunity to understand the benefits of the job and hopefully choose to apply and take the test,’’ Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said.