Branching Out

01.12.14

Bill De Blasio’s Diversity Opportunity

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is under pressure to consider the FDNY’s pitiful diversity record when choosing a new fire commissioner.

Pressure is mounting for newly inaugurated New York City mayor Bill de Blasio to choose a new fire department commissioner this week—and select a candidate who breaks the tradition of appointing a white male. Between de Blasio’s progressive platform and a major push from minority representatives and women’s groups within FDNY, this may be the year that the city will see its first ever female running the department, as previous commissioner Salvatore Cassano makes his exit.

According to a recent Daily News article, sources within the department say three women are at the top of De Blasio’s shortlist: Brenda Berkman, Mylan Denerstein, and Rochelle 'Rocky' Jones.

Such change at the top of the FDNY could dramatically affect a department many accuse of sorely lacking in diversity. There are currently 37 female firefighters in New York City (100 total women in FDNY uniform, if EMT’s are included) out of a total of 10,500. That’s a dismal 0.3 percent of the force. One FDNY source, who wished to remain anonymous, informed The Daily Beast that interviews did indeed take place during the first week of January, but none of the committee members or interviewees are allowed to comment.

Two firefighters’ associations within the department, the African-American Vulcan Society and United Women Firefighters, have been lobbying for increased diversity and representatives say change at the top could mean reaching some of their goals moving forward.

Some of the recent push stems from the Vulcan Society’s lawsuit against the department, claiming that minority applicants were discriminated against during hiring. After years of legal battles, a judge ruled in their favor, saying the FDNY has to acknowledge and respond to discrimination charges. This included creating a new written exam, addressing priority hires and pay scales, and aim to erase nepotism from the personnel review board that helps decide on hires.

There are currently 37 female firefighters in New York City out of a total of 10,500. That’s a dismal 0.3 percent.

Although 2013 saw the most diverse graduating class in FDNY history, with over 60 percent of graduates from a minority group, diversity efforts are being increased in advance of the new appointment.

At a December 13 City Council meeting, a representative of the United Women Firefighters testified that gender-based discrimination is still rampant in firehouses and that the numbers of female firefighters in New York City are the lowest among all large metropolitan districts across the U.S.

“San Francisco has 15 percent women in the force,” says UWF President Sarinya Srisakul, who made history as NYC’s first Asian-American female firefighter when she started on the job in 2005. “The reason why other cities have such good numbers is they have special recruitment and training efforts for women, they made it a priority. And that’s because many of those departments had lawsuits brought against them.”

UWF has partnered with FDNY’s office of recruitment and diversity to make special recruitment efforts, and UWF members themselves train recruits to prepare them for the physical test. Still, says Srisakul, “FDNY does not have any special funds set aside to train women. The recruiting efforts could be increased and aimed towards women more likely to take the test, like veterans and athletes.”

Srisakul says extraneous—and illegal—physical tests are widespread at the FDNY Academy, make it harder on rookies that have already passed the nationwide Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT): “What is happening is that the Department is forced to use these entrance standards that promote diversity that they don't agree with, so they put harder standards in academy to weed them out.”  

In addition to wiping out extra tests, UWF wants to see more accommodations for female firefighters in firehouses. “2013 was the first year that we saw great numbers of women being hired,” says Srisakul, in reference to the eight women out of the year’s class of six hundred, “but one of those women got reassigned three times because the first two houses didn’t have accommodations.”

“The department boasts that 80 percent of firehouses are equipped to house females,” she says, “but we think it should be 100 percent. After all, there have been women firefighters now for thirty years.”

At a December City Council hearing, a member of the mayor’s transition team took notes as women from the fire department testified about harassment, unfair testing, and unequal of non-existent accommodations. Dr. Marc Bendick, an employment economist and principal researcher on a comprehensive national study of women firefighters, testified that “in fire departments where women are given fair, equal, non-hostile treatment in recruitment…it is reasonable to expect a fire department’s uniformed firefighters and officers to include about 17 percent women.”

“When a fire department employs women at a rate much lower than 17 percent—in particular, New York City’s approximately one-half of one percent,” Bendick argued, “that outcome is directly traceable to a departmental culture in which hostility, discrimination, harassment and exclusion operate and are tolerated, implicitly and explicitly, by departmental leadership.”

Bendick stressed that closing this gap requires a top-down approach to quashing old stereotypes and discrimination against women in the force: “These major cultural changes require sustained effort over multiple years, including overcoming sometimes uncomfortable conflict. They therefore happen only in departments where the fire commissioner and other senior leaders are committed to these objectives and receive sustained oversight and support from their mayor and city council.”

Both United Women Firefighters and The Vulcan Society express hopes that the new Fire Department boss will be more responsive to diversity issues than past commissioners have been.

“The fire department has a history of being biased and ignorant,” says Vulcan Society President John Coombs, “rather than being informed.”

Editor's Note: The article mistakenly said the FDNY could appoint its first African-American chief, but the department has had two black commissioners, Augustus A. Beekman and Robert O. Lowrey.