Why the FDNY Could Use Some Color

Adding some diversity to the city's bravest bunch is long overdue.

The Fire Department of New York soon will commemorate the anniversary of its greatest tragedy and, in some ways, its greatest triumph. The department’s extraordinary sacrifice on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when 343 service members were killed trying to rescue civilians in the twin towers, became a symbol of sacrifice and courage in the face of hatred and fanaticism. The FDNY, always among the city’s most admired public agencies, inspired the world with its devotion to duty on that awful day nearly a decade ago.

Now, however, as it prepares to mourn its fallen heroes yet again, the department faces another challenge. Soon, thousands of would-be firefighters will take a civil service test in hopes of qualifying for a job with the FDNY. It will be the first such test given in four years, and it will be one of the most important such tests given since FDNY reformers insisted on qualifying tests more than a century ago.

Simply put, the FDNY is too white and too male. At a time when the Police Department has become a model of diversity, at a time when other fire departments around the country have found a way to incorporate and even welcome women as colleagues, the FDNY’s overwhelmingly white male work force is an anachronism. Worse, it is a court case waiting to be made.

Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano knows what is at stake when new hiring begins. If the department’s hiring practices continue as usual, lawsuits on behalf of women and minorities inevitably will be brought, and a judge could order a new round of testing. That would delay the hiring of young new recruits and inevitably add to tensions in the city’s firehouses.

So Commissioner Cassano is spending the summer in minority neighborhoods, encouraging underrepresented groups to prepare for and take the test. But encouragement isn’t enough—the commissioner has to reassure women and minorities that they are welcome in the firehouse. That has not always been the case, as more than a few women and black firefighters have said publicly.

New York has made great strides ameliorating racial tension in the city over the past decade. But the lack of diversity in one of the city’s most storied departments remains a sore point. This needs to be fixed, now, so that the new class of the Bravest looks more like New York City.

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