Now, after lawsuit filed in 2007 by the Vulcan Society of black firefighters and a sharply worded order to diversify by District Judge Nicolas Garaufis—who also appointed a monitor for 10 years to enforce his rulings—it looks likely the FDNY's racial balance will change.
Garaufis determined three previous FDNY written examination kept minorities off the force by not conforming to equal employment opportunity standards, but the exam the city held last year complied with the judge's requirements. The FDNY conducted an intense campaign over several months to recruit minorities to take that test that included speakers at schools, recruiters in malls and a banner front-page headline in the Amsterdam News: "FDNY NEEDS YOU!"
Of the approximately 40,000 people who took the exam, about 19,000 were minorities and almost 2,000 were women (more than the combined total of the prior three tests). In January the first batch of people who passed the exam began training at the city's fire academy—and 42 percent of those 320 probationary firefighters were black, Latino, Asian and/or women.
Given the numbers in the incoming class and the judge's ongoing oversight, one might think all current black firefighters would be happy. The truth is more complicated.
"To me, none of this matters until they get on the job. I don't want to see them weeding people out," says firefighter Tracy Lewis, one of the few blacks–and even fewer females—on the job. "The FDNY is supposed to be the best fire department. Let's show we have the best training and the best supervision."
Skepticism about change
In her 12 years fighting fires Lewis, who has also served as an officer of the Vulcan Society and the United Women Firefighters of the FDNY, says she has seen and heard simply too much to be cavalier about the issue of diversity. "It's just hard to imagine some of these guys changing because of a court order."
Joe, a black firefighter in his mid-30s who didn't want his real name used, agreed. After nine years as the only black person in his firehouse, Joe says, "Nothing major is going to change soon."
Lt. Michael Marshall, a former vice president of the Vulcans and one of those who helped launch the court action, points out that even as new black firefighters are added in the next four years, "We'll still be only about 8 percent of the force. Change is going to be slow and difficult.
But he adds: "Change it will be. And it will be a big deal."
The 14 black firefighters City Limits spoke to welcome the court victory and the prospect of more people of color joining their ranks, but are wary. Joe cautions that one of the most immediate results may be "a little more tension in the firehouses."
He adds, "Things will get better, but it will take time. After five years or so, they—at least some of them, many of them—[will] feel differently. When you have a chance to get to know someone you work with, sometimes in dangerous situations—when you get to know someone's personality plus his ability—you feel differently. But it will take some years."
Nice guys, overt insults, subtle slights
In firehouses throughout the city many black firefighters like Joe are the only people of color on duty; others may be among two to five people of color on a roster of about 25. Black firefighters feel the FDNY is a microcosm of society.
"There are a lot of nice guys, but there are also many that feel they don't have to respect you," firefighter Rusebell Wilson says, and others agree. In this environment race relations can be awkward. Insults can come disguised as compliments. Joe, for one, often hears, "You don't act black." As Wilson puts it, "To the guys in my house I'm a white guy—because I'm born in England." Lt. Andrew Brown hears stuff like, "You're not Jamaican, you're not black, or you're the whitest black guy ever."
"Why, because I speak properly?" he responds and good-naturedly reminds them, "White ain't right."
Sometimes the offenses are more overt. Wilson once got into a heated argument with a white firefighter who derisively called working the West Indian Day Parade "blood money." Jack, another black firefighter who requested anonymity, warned a less experienced black co-worker about going to Boston with several white firefighters for St. Patrick's Day. "I know these guys have a certain mentality as it is. When they drink, their inhibitions are let loose. I forewarned this guy," Jack recalls. "He came back hurt. One of the guys called him a 'n----r.'"
However, it's never clear how deep their colleagues' feelings go. When asked about being black and a woman firefighter, Lewis says, "Sometimes it's not about sex or race. A lot of these people just go along to get along. Whatever they hear, they accept." Brown echoes that point: "Some guys with the biggest mouths, you see them at Home Depot and they're teddy bears." Jack adds, "You hear some of these guys make remarks about minorities and find out their wife and kids are Puerto Rican. So you know they don't say those things at home."
Black firefighters are not merely a different color than their colleagues; they can also feel like outsiders in what sometimes seems like a family business. "If they don't have relatives, they definitely have friends," Joe says of a significant portion of his white, second- and third-generation FDNY co-workers. "This is something your fathers fought to make legitimate, and you want to keep that legitimacy intact. I respect that, but it's a city job, not your private company."
This culture can also affect minority recruitment in subtle ways. Paul Washington, an FDNY captain and former Vulcan Society president, explains that not having an FDNY connection through friends and family is a huge disadvantage for minority recruitment. "It's not the type of job you would seek unless you know how good it is," he says.
The most common complaint blacks make about traditional FDNY hiring practices is that the department seemed delinquent in contacting candidates during the application process. Brown says he called the FDNY personnel office frequently to update his status when he applied. After consistently being informed that everything was fine, on a call four days before his scheduled starting date, the office told him he did not have an adequate number of college credits for the job. Dumfounded (and a college graduate), Brown drove from Connecticut to the city to re-deliver his transcript. "I was naïve," he says. "They bumped me to the next class."
Anger on the job
In firehouses, black firefighters say, Garaufis remains unpopular, as do his orders. "There is a lot of talk about dumbing down. They are concerned about the written test and the standards of the job," Joe explains. "One-on-one guys have said that to me." Marshall dismisses the issue as "firehouse rhetoric," adding, "Everybody knows the written test has nothing to do with how good a firefighter you are."
The loudest opposition to Garaufis' rulings from within the department comes from a group called Merit Matters, headed by FDNY Deputy Chief Paul Mannix. Contending that they support equal opportunity, not guaranteed results, Merit Matters mobilized about 150 firefighters at the federal courthouse in downtown Brooklyn in October to express their objections to the judge and his rulings.
Opposition by some FDNY members to Garaufis' pressure led to a confrontation last year at a training event run by the Vulcans, who have traditionally offered test-prep courses to people signed up to take the FDNY test who register with the group.
In late February 2012, Brown ran a Vulcan tutorial session at M.S. 72 in Jamaica. Firefighter Rannie Battle, a former Vulcan vice-president, was manning a registration table when about 50 or 60 white men came into the school lobby demanding entrance to the class. According to Battle, the crowd of whites grew boisterous, calling Brown and Battle racist. One man loudly claimed to be "black-Irish." The mob began chanting "What would Martin Luther King do?" and mockingly sang "We Shall Overcome."
"I had a couple of candidates ask me, 'Is this going to happen on the job?" Battle says. "I told them the best way to get back at them is to become a firefighter."
Mannix acknowledges that he invited white candidates to the Vulcan training session. He says he believed that the Vulcans give the best classes and felt they may have been informed about what was going to be on the test. Regarding the scene at the school, Mannix doesn't condone all of the white protesters' actions. However, he feels they were justifiably angry about being denied access because of they were white and has filed a grievance with the FDNY about it.
Merit Matters is not the only opposition to the Garaufis ruling. The Uniformed Firefighters Association, the firefighters' union, has also opposed the judge's decisions. And Mayor Bloomberg has appealed to get Garaufis and his court-appointed monitor removed from the case, as well as the city absolved from paying any compensation to those affected by the discrimination. On February 7th, the appeals court stayed Garaufis' order and froze the activities of the special monitor.
Washington acknowledges this may signal an eventual Bloomberg victory in the case, but is not too worried. "Years of political and community action got us to where we are today. The big thing was for us to get a new test—and get people hired," he says.
Love for the job
As this legal drama roils around them, the black firefighters City Limits interviewed all say they still enjoy the job. "If you see a guy smiling while he's driving to work, he must be a fireman," Wilson says.
They all recall their first fire. "Your mind is going a million miles an hour but with experience things slow down. You begin to realize what floor you're on, where and what type of fire it is and what needs to be done," Marshall says.
The science of firefighting makes Tracy Lewis look at city buildings and architecture differently. Of fighting blazes, Jack says, "I must admit it is exciting. It's like an adrenaline rush and you feel good afterwards—but on the other side people are losing their things, losing their life."
"I don't wish it on anyone's house," Brown adds, "but if there's a building on fire, I want to be working."
Washington has never seen minorities coming into the fire department at this rate. "I feel like I'm witnessing the integration of the FDNY," he says. If past is prologue, however, cautious optimism is in order. Forty years ago, the Vulcans were among the first in this country to win a federal anti-discrimination lawsuit. In that instance, in 1973, instead of getting a court order they settled, agreeing that for every four firefighters hired, one would be black. "The mistake we made then," Marshall explains, "was our suit was only for that current list. After the list expired (in 1977), our agreement expired."
Washington anticipates new minority firefighters joining the department at a steady rate every few months for the next four years. The Vulcan Society is offering free training sessions on weekends to help people on the list pass the physical exam.
John Coombs, the current president of the Vulcan Society, welcomes the new test and the new recruits. "We've got to make sure they are going to be treated fairly. We're confident on their own that they will do alright."
Washington agrees. "These changes don't happen because they are bound to happen – or that they're inevitable," he says. "We've got to stay on top of this."
Fred Jerome contributed research for this article.