FDNY Strives to Diversify

The number of minorities who passed the written firefighter exam in New York City this year represents a 17 percent increase from those who passed the last test administered in 2002, indicating that the city’s plan to diversify its fire department may be working.

In 2002, only 21 percent of those who passed the tests were minorities. That, coupled with the fact that the city’s fire department consists of only approximately three percent black and five percent Hispanic firefighters, has raised concerns the fire department lacks diversity and maintains discriminatory hiring practices.

The federal Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the city last May, claiming the city’s written examinations discriminate against minorities. The lawsuit charges that FDNY exams administered in 1999 and 2002 violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act in part because the tests “do not accurately determine whether an applicant will be able to perform the job of firefighter” and because minorities passed at lower rates.

In this year’s exam, administered in January, 38 percent of those who passed were minorities. Minorities also represented 33 percent of the top 4,000 scorers – a 19 percent increase from 2002. Mayor Michael Bloomberg used the results to argue that the test itself was not discriminatory; instead, the city needed to reach out to minorities and encourage them to apply in the first place.

“I thought the lawsuit was unnecessary from the beginning,” Bloomberg said. “It was that we did not attract people to take the test. That was the fundamental problem.”

From January through November 2006, the city reportedly set out to recruit minorities to take the test by blanketing more than 26,000 citywide and neighborhood events. In 2002, only 200 events were targeted.

While more minorities are eligible this year to become firefighters than in 2002, they still must take additional steps before they can become members of the department. In addition to passing the test – and often scoring in the top 4,000 range – all qualified applicants also must pass physicals and attend a fire-training academy.

John Coombs, president of the Vulcan Society, an organization of black firefighters, expressed skepticism that the test results will lead to more minorities employed with FDNY.

“The jury is going to be out until all of these people are hired,” he said.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta denied discriminatory action in the fire department’s hiring practices.

“In the five years since this administration took office, we have tripled the minority hiring rate,” he said in May, after the discrimination lawsuit was filed. “I don’t see a perceived deficiency here ... we are working to make the department look like the city we serve.”

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