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In a Dramatic Turnaround, Number of FDNY Applicants of Color Skyrockets

Surge in black and Latino candidates didn't come without a fight

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."

Patra Grimm May 10, 2012 at 01:57 AM
It shows that the test will be revised for people who cannot pass the teston their own merit. The test is the same for all. You pass you get hired. You fail the test you dont get the job. Color should not come into it & tests should not be revised for minorities or anyone. If a person cant pass the written exam do you think i want that idiot going to rescue people at a fire. Enough if this. Hire on merit alone. STUDY STUDY STUDY It works. Out in the effort. Not cry about color.
Tiffany Jeanene Barrett May 10, 2012 at 02:43 PM
Great job Judge Nicholas Garaufis, more officials need to recognize the disparate treatment within many American systems. Patra, I'm sorry I don't understand what a "written exam" has to do with rescuing people in a fire. Please understand I am not negating that requirement but instead responding to your comment. Instead it seems that strength, stamina, and more importantly COURAGE would rank higher on those lists.
pat May 10, 2012 at 06:18 PM
Awesome, let's keep dropping the standards to accomodate people not capable. I have seen it in other government agencies. It is always interesting to see how people really believe that stamina and strength are more important than smarts when it comes to jobs in security and safety. That could not be farthest from the truth. When lives are at stake, it is the quick decision making process that saves lives in conjunction with stamina and strength. If you have people that do not meet the mark academically in this line of work, you will have the untrained leading the uninterested. So sad to see this happening to our beloved and most cherished jobs in America. We are loosing our American identity by making everything so easy for everyone. People will simply expect hand outs because of what they look like. Crazy world we live in.
Tiffany Jeanene Barrett May 11, 2012 at 03:32 PM
Pat, I agree...crazier world we live in. A written exam is not indicative of a person being able to think on their feet and impulsively make the most appropriate decision. Maybe a behavioral group interview, similar to that which the FBI administers. As mentioned before I am not negating the the requirements of the position but instead challenging the premise of these arguments. That's ALL I have to say and folks enjoy a wonderful weekend.
Michael Nigro May 11, 2012 at 06:52 PM
Mrs. Barrett, As a Captain In the FDNY, I read your comment with great interest. In todays enviornment, a firefighter who can read and understand technical material is essential to everyones safety, yours and mine. Have you ever seen a label on a Hazardous Materials container? Can you read and understand Building Inspection forms and requirements? What about NYS BLS-CFR Protocols? Half of our call volume is medical, these are the guidelines. There is a need to hire the most qualified candidate...race, color, creed, gender and sexual orientation should not be the driving force behind employment. We need to do a better job of reaching out to minorities and explaining the benefits of becoming a firefighter in NYC. As for your idea of FBI type behavioral group interviews, it would be interesting to see how we could incorperate this and how individuals would be evaluated. I very much want to see this great department better represent the population we serve, but lowering of standards, for anyone, regardless of who or what they are, is not the way to do it. Much of our strength, stamina and COURAGE comes from knowledge...an understanding of building construction and fire behavior, positions and assignments, chemical reactions and behaviors, regulations, policies and protocols. These subjects ensure our safety and that of the public. To do anything to marginalize or minimalize the education of a candidate negatively affects the organization.

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