To become one of New York's Bravest, black and Latino firefighters had to do more than just prove their courage in the face of danger.
Those lucky few also had to fight an established ethos that regularly stacked the deck against minority candidates—at least, according to firefighters of color like John Coombs of Engine 250 in Brooklyn.
But for Coombs and other black and Latino members of the New York Fire Department there is new hope that may be close to being overcome.
According to FDNY statistics released Tuesday, a record-breaking 19,260 minorities took a revamped exam earlier this spring—a 130 percent increase from the number of applicants taking a test administered in 2007.
Women also posted solid gains, with a total of 1,952 applicants taking this year's test—more than the three previous test cycles combined, according to FDNY.
"The extraordinary effort we made to reach people of color and women and interest them in the firefighter exam has been an unprecedented success," said FDNY commissioner Salvatore Cassano.
However, the road to increased diversity in this year's recruiting class has been anything but smooth.
In 2009, Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis' 2009 ruled in favor of a group of black firefighters, finding that FDNY's 85-question written exam discriminated against minority candidates.
In response to the ruling, FDNY halted the hiring of new firefighters and slowly began looking at ways to revamp the exam to conform to Garaufis' ruling. However, charging fire officials with not doing enough to fix the problem.
Since then, FDNY embarked on a hoping attract more minority and women candidates—a strategy that may have paid big dividends in the form of this year's diverse crop of prospective firefighters.
But Coombs at Engine 250 was still wary of talk of progress in the FDNY's hiring practices.
"Although the numbers have increased, we won’t be satisfied until men and women of color start showing up for work in firehouses," said Coombs, who is also president of the Vulcan Society, a group of active and retired black firefighters. "They have given us numbers before."
Another critic of FDNY's recruiting practices, 57th Assembly District Leader Olanike "Ola" Alabi, agreed.
"It demonstrates that with the proper outreach, recruitment and commitment to diversity, our workforce can be reflective of the City of New York," Alabi said. "The next step is to ensure that the applicants become employees."