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

“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)