At roughly 3 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian and less than 1 percent female, the FDNY is the only major New York City agency that has failed to diversify and the only big-city fire department in this country still displaying an overwhelmingly white status. The Los Angeles Fire Department is 14 percent black. Dallas's is 18.1 percent. One in five Chicago firefighters and more than a quarter of Philadelphia's are black.

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."