Issue of the Week

Looking For A Fire Department That Looks Like New York

by Jane Latour

3 December 01

In 1965 Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed Robert Lowery fire commissioner, making him the first African American ever to head the Fire Department of the City of New York. He was indeed the first black to head a fire department in any major American city. This was all the more remarkable because at that time, out of a total of 13,500 firefighters in the department, there were only 600 blacks.

Almost four decades later, the Fire Department of New York has just about half that number of black firefighters. As of a year ago out of a total of 11,344 firefighters, just 321 were black. There were 341 Hispanics. As for women, according to a study by Public Advocate Mark Green issued last May, there are only 29.

After the terrible losses sustained by the department on September 11th, the incoming mayor does not have a Lindsay-like mandate to raise the issue of diversity in the Fire Department. The outgoing administration has quietly tabled the issue. In May, the city's Equal Employment Practices Commission found the Fire Department had created barriers to the hiring of minorities, women and the poor. But when the commission met in October, it voted to suspend its effort to get the department to comply with its recommendations "for the indefinite future."

Even Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen has admitted there is a problem. At a swearing-in ceremony for a new class of recruits last year, he said, "The breakdown of the Fire Department is terrible--it's 94 percent white male, and it's one of the issues that we are constantly being criticized for."

Rightly so, says Lieutenant Paul Washington, president of the Vulcan Society, a group of black firefighters, who says simply, "the numbers tell you everything."

The women in the department have an additional complaint. They say they have become almost invisible since September 11th. But says Brenda Berkman, president of United Women Firefighters, "I am here to tell you that women were and are at Ground Zero. They have been there since the first minutes of the attack. "

The audit conducted by the city's Equal Employment Practices Commission drew on statistics from other large cities to show how New York lags behind the other big city fire departments. Los Angeles, San Antonio, Philadelphia and Chicago all have firefighting forces that are anywhere from 30 to 50 percent African American and Hispanic. In New York City, about seven percent of the department is minority. Even Phoenix, Arizona has proportionately way more African Americans and Latinos in its fire department, some 22 percent. And women make up 10 to 15 percent of other cities' departments, compared to less than one percent of New York City firefighters.

New York's fire department also trails other uniformed departments in New York City. According a survey of the New York Police Department by the public advocate, 18 percent of police officers are Latino (compared to 3.2 percent in the Fire Department who are Latino), 17 percent African American (3.8 percent blacks in the Fire Department) and 15 percent women (0.3 percent women in the Fire Department).

"Unless people have friends or relatives in the department, they are out of the pipeline for recruitment and hiring," Equal Employment Practices Commis sion executive director Abraham May Jr. told reporters in May.

The commission found that the fire department did not schedule entrance examinations frequently enough and had resisted efforts to assign minority recruiters to all five boroughs. The New York Times reported that the group also found that the $400 cost of required defibrillator training is a barrier to some low-income applicants and recommended that the city pay for the class. Applicants receive extra credit if they are city residents, but, th e commission said, the department does not make sufficient efforts to check out such residency claims.

In some cases, the city would simply have to return to previous policies to help remedy the situation. For example, unlike his predecessor, Howard Safir, Von Essen has not held regular meetings with an advisory committee consisting of the heads of the Vulcan Society, the United Women Firefighters and other groups representing minority groups in the department. The employment commission included reinstatement of this policy in its list of recommendations.

One notable place to begin solving the diversity problem is the Cadet Program, which helps applicants become firefighters if they first serve as emergency medical workers. In its first four years, it has achieved some success. The Fire Academy graduation class in November 2000, which included 139 Emergency Medical Technicians and paramedics tapped for promotion to the Fire Department, was 2.9 percent Asian, 10.7 percent black, 14.3 percent Hispanic and 4 percent female. The Vulcan Society's Washington has called this a "drop in the bucket." But the program has promise.

As he considers who to name as fire commissioner, Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg may not make a choice that is as bold as Lindsay's was. But his selection could reflect some commitment to greater diversity and a willingness to learn from the experiences of other departments that have achieved a greater degree of success in meeting the challenge of equality and inclusion.

Jane Latour manages the Women's Project of the Association for Union Democracy.

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