Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


How We Got Here: New Law Aims to Increase Transparency and Diversity at the FDNY

fdny medal day

2015 FDNY Medal Day at City Hall (photo: @FDNY)

"Diversity is strength – and the world's greatest fire department will grow even stronger when it more closely resembles the city it serves." -Mayor Bill de Blasio, June 2, 2015

On June 2, 2015 Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law Intro. 0579-A, allowing for greater transparency into the New York City Fire Department application and hiring processes by requiring that an annual report be made with regard to the racial and gender makeup of applicants. The bill, co-sponsored by Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Elizabeth Crowley, was a result of years of scrutiny on diversity in the FDNY. Currently, less than .5 percent of over 10,000 FDNY firefighters and officials are women. In 2014, the city agreed to a $98-million-dollar settlement paid out for lost wages and benefits to 1,470 black and Hispanic firefighter applicants.

In introducing their bill, Rosenthal, chair of the Council's Committee on Contracts, and Crowley, chair of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, cited far greater percentages of women in other cities' fire departments. Their bill had 43 other council members sign on as sponsors, was swiftly approved of by the mayor, and was, for some, a long time coming.

The following is an abridged history leading up to the signing of the bill.

  • November, 1965, Robert O. Lowery, becomes the first African American fire commissioner of a major city: Lowery had joined the FDNY in 1941 when African-Americans were not allowed to use department kitchen utensils and slept in separate firehouse areas, but in 1965 he became fire commissioner to the 13,500-person FDNY, of which around 4 percent was African-American.
  • 1977, Brenda Berkman, becomes the first woman FDNY firefighter: "Prior to 1977, New York City had a quota for women firefighters. That quota was zero." -Brenda Berkman
  • Throughout the 80s and 90s the FDNY sees small numbers of women and people of color entering the ranks, leading to increased scrutiny, criticism, and legal action.
  • May 21, 2007, United States v. City of New York; FDNY Employment Discrimination Case: The federal government alleges that the City of New York's written examinations and application screening process results has a "disparate impact upon black and Hispanic applicants" that are neither "job-related for the position" nor "consistent with business necessity," as Title VII mandates. The two examination processes include a written exam and physical performance test (PPT). Both examinations generated "eligibility lists" that were used to appoint entry-level firefighters for several years. At the time that the case was filed black firefighters were 3 percent of the FDNY, while Hispanic firefighters made up 4.4 percent of the almost 11,000-member force.
  • September 2007, the Vulcan Society is allowed to intervene in the United States' lawsuit: The Vulcan Society, an organization of black firefighters in New York City, files a complaint alongside the United States', claiming that the City of New York's written examinations and application screening process results have a "disparate impact" upon black applicants. The Vulcan Society specifies its claim to just black applicants, unlike the federal claim which includes Hispanic applicants, and also indicates the claim as being against the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta as well as the City of New York.
  • January 13, 2010, United States v. City of New York: The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York holds that the City's use of Exam 7029 and 2043 on applicants in 1999 and 2002 shows "a pattern and practice of intentional discrimination against blacks" violating the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and State and City Human Rights Laws. According to expert analysis, about "one thousand additional black and Hispanic candidates would have been considered for appointment as FDNY firefighters had it not been for the disparities resulting from the examinations." Since "293 additional black and Hispanic candidates would have been appointed from the eligibility lists" and there were only "303 black firefights and 605 Hispanic firefighters" (of 8,998 total firefighters) in 2007, the 293 additional candidates would have been a significant addition. The expert analysis illustrated the "overwhelming" disparity and strongly influenced the ruling of "intentional discrimination."
  • April 4, 2012, United States v. City of New York: A United States District Court finds that 293 currently employed FDNY firefighters were deemed eligible for retroactive seniority.
  • May 14, 2013, United States v. City of New York: The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit dismisses the claims against Mayor Bloomberg and former Fire Commissioner Scoppetta. Meanwhile, the judgement of intentional discrimination is reassigned "to a different district judge." 
  • March 18, 2014, United States v. City of New York: The de Blasio administration announces an agreement to settle the suit and pay approximately $98 million in lost wages and benefits to 1,470 black and Hispanic firefighter applicants in 1999 and 2002. The City also agreed to create an executive staff position for a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer who will report directly to the Fire Commissioner, to recruit African American test-takers in proportion to the age-eligible African-American New Yorkers in the labor market, and to increase transparency regarding medical standards for firefighter candidates.
  • August 11, 2014, New York Magazine features the four new FDNY woman "probies": These four Class of 2014 women were profiled by New York Magazine and brought the total number of women in FDNY to 41 out of 10,400 firefighters and officers across the city, or .4 percent. In comparison, according to Council Member Helen Rosenthal, 13 percent of San Francisco's firefighters are women and 17% of New York police officers are women. (photo below: Christopher Anderson/New York Magazine)

Christopher Anderson/New York Magazine

  • December 8, 2014, Intro. 0579-A is introduced to the City Council: Requires the FDNY to publish a report on the gender and racial makeup of the graduates as well as cover the phases of the hiring process on or before March 1 each year.
  • December 10, 2014, Council Members hold a rally on the steps of City Hall with United Women Firefighters: "The City not only needs to increase and rethink its recruitment efforts, it needs to answer serious questions regarding testing methods in the Fire Academy that may be keeping female probationary firefighters from graduating." -Elizabeth Crowley, Chair of the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee, according to The Observer.
  • December 10, 2014, FDNY Commissioner lessens importance of FST: Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro lessened the importance of the Functional Skills Training test. The FST test is just one part of the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) that is needed to become an entry-level firefighter. Previously failing the FST portion of CPAT disqualified a recruit from graduating and becoming a full member of the force. FST includes climbing stairs with "tools and equipment weighing in excess of 100 lbs" and is noted by FDNY on its website as requiring physical conditioning "well beyond what is necessary to pass CPAT."
  • May 5, 2015, Rebecca Wax graduates without passing FST: Rebecca Wax was the only probationary firefighter in the Class of 2015 who graduated and did not complete the FST test in the time allotted. Wax's scores were illegally leaked to the press and showed that she finished the test four minutes after the time allotted. There was intense backlash of alleged lowering standards by lessening the importance of the FST test and allowing Wax to graduate. Wax was one of three women graduating. (photo below: Joe Marino/NY Daily News)

Joe Marino/NY Daily News

  • May 14, 2015, City Council passes Intro. 0579-A: FDNY must release a report covering its admissions and graduation statistics disaggregated by "racial and gender makeup of applicants" effective 60 days after the bill is made into a law. The report would provide further transparency into application and hiring processes. Council Member Helen Rosenthal sarcastically said she is "eager to learn what is so unique about being a firefighter in NYC that it excludes women," and, more seriously, that "the data we will receive from this bill will shed light on how many women apply to be firefighters and where they drop off along the long application process, which can take several years from start to finish."
  • June 2, 2015, Mayor de Blasio signs Intro. 0579-A: "By reporting gender and race at every stage of the application process, we are ensuring the FDNY is not only maintaining the strongest trainees to protect our communities but that the applicant pool reflects the great diversity of our city." -Council Member and bill co-sponsor Elizabeth Crowley

While the $98 million settlement, the hiring of a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, and Fire Commissioner Nigro's reexamination of the Functional Skills Training test all indicate movement toward diversity in the FDNY, Intro. 0579-A is a call for transparency aimed at revealing the effectiveness of those and other changes. The law takes a different stance to encourage more diversified hiring practices by looking to clarify and open up the mechanisms behind the application and hiring process and examine how effective the other changes have been. Time will tell if the FDNY becomes more representative of the city it serves.

by Erika Wang, Gotham Gazette

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: New York Left Hits Wall in Primaries, Points to Reasons for Optimism
New York Left Hits Wall in Primaries, Points to Reasons for Optimism
Gotham Gazette: Rethinking Economic Development in the Post-Covid World
Rethinking Economic Development in the Post-Covid World
Gotham Gazette: The Forgotten History of Latino Politics in New York
The Forgotten History of Latino Politics in New York
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast Max Politics Podcast