FDNY Hispanic Leader Says Entrance Exam Not Biased

Chief Leader - November 01, 2011

by SARAH DORSEY

The president of the Fire Department's Hispanic Society says he does not believe the entrance exam is biased, nor does he believe the FDNY is racist, notwithstanding a Federal Judge's finding that the past three tests were discriminatory that led to his scolding of the department and Mayor Bloomberg for failing to remedy the problem.

Lieut. George Ricco Diaz, a 27-year veteran of the agency, says he agrees with the black firefighters' group the Vulcan Society "100 percent" that there is a "diversity problem" in the department. But Mr. Diaz, who says he was the FDNY's sole recruiter during the 1980s, believes that better recruitment efforts, not a different exam, is the solution. He said he has asked the Vulcans to keep the word "Hispanics" out of their hiring discrimination lawsuit because he doesn't think they are being harmed by the test, which is administered by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.

'Level Playing Field' Needed "We have not seen the evidence that a Hispanic will answer any question differently because of his ethnicity," Lieutenant Diaz said. "If you look at the ratio of Hispanics who take the test versus those who pass and get hired, it's good."

Instead of drastically revamping the test, he called for aggressive recruiting of minority candidates and women. He thinks recent efforts are a step in the right direction for a Fire Department that "has been dragging [its] feet" on reaching out to people of color. "All we had to do was really publicize the exam," he said. "You can see the results from this recent filing."

Mr. Diaz was referring to the most-recent crop of candidates who filed to take the upcoming 2012 exam--a record 49 percent of whom were people of color, including 14,122 black candidates and 14,110 Latinos, according to an FDNY spokesman. Latinos have indeed increased their ranks in the Fire Department over the last 20 years, while the number of African-Americans has slipped, based on department statistics. In 1991, there were 433 blacks and 284 Latinos out of a total of 11,470 firefighters. The numbers have since moved in opposite directions: there are 698 Hispanics and 339 African-Americans out of 10,575 firefighters of all ranks.

Despite their relative gains, there are still far fewer Latinos in the department than in the city's general population, however. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Hispanics make up 28.6 percent of New York City residents; they constitute only 6.6 percent of the Fire Department. Similarly, non-Hispanic whites make up only about a third of New York City's population--but constitute 89 percent of the FDNY, according to its own figures. Firefighters can live in any of six state counties outside the five boroughs.

A Historical Legacy

In 2007, the Vulcan Society's lawyers charged that the Fire Department employed the lowest percentage of people of color of any major fire department in America, noting that "57 percent of Los Angeles' firefighters, 51 percent of Philadelphia's, and 40 percent of Boston's are people of color."

Lieutenant Diaz believes this is largely because historically, New York firefighters recruited informally, among their friends and neighbors. In the past, he says, "DCAS would send a few applications to the local firehouse. Each firefighter would take two applications home. Who are they going to give it to? If it were me, I'd give it to my nephew first, then the neighbor kid up the block I like."

Mr. Diaz said that most firefighters are best acquainted with others of their ethnic group, so the status quo remained. He called this "institutionalized favoritism" rather than racism. "On the surface it seems like there's some justification [for calling it racism], but it's circumstantial evidence," he said.

While acknowledging that there have been racist incidents in firehouses over the years, he insisted they were "few and far between" and that there's no more prejudice "than you'll find in regular society."

'Had to Prove Themselves'

The recent U.S. Department of Justice suit spurred by the Vulcans' complaint wasn't the first time the FDNY got in legal trouble over its mostly-white ranks. In 1973, a judge imposed a hiring quota that required the department to hire one person of color for every three Caucasians, in part to remedy the fact that then--as now--only about 3 percent of firefighters were black. Although the quota expired in 1977, seven years before he joined the department, Lieutenant Diaz said "it was very difficult to ever come in and be accepted as an equal in the Fire Department" in the following years. "A lot of [the minorities] had to prove themselves above and beyond. I don't want that to ever be imposed on any firefighters."

According to Mr. Diaz, most of the whites in the department want more diversity--as long as the test isn't "watered down," which he said the average firefighter believes will happen. In this climate, he thinks Latinos are concerned about their reputations: "The members of the Hispanic Society do not want to see our numbers grow by lowering the standards to get this job."

Vulcan Society president John Coombs declined to offer a detailed comment on Lieutenant Diaz's opinions. But former Hispanic Society president Jose Garcia challenged them, saying the Department of Justice got involved for good reason.

"This is the DOJ under George Bush," said Lieutenant Garcia, a 33-year veteran of the department. "And [even] they said there was something fundamentally wrong with the hiring practices of the FDNY." The Justice Department filed the suit midway through President Bush's second term.

He also challenged the notion that most Hispanic Society members agreed with Mr. Diaz. "How many Hispanics support the Vulcans won't be known until every single dues-paying member is given the opportunity to vote on that issue," Mr. Garcia said. Even Mr. Diaz admits that his membership is divided somewhat on the subject of the discrimination suit, although he claims most would agree with his perspective.

A Point of Agreement

Lieutenant Diaz, the Vulcans and U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis concur on one point: the written firefighter exam, at least as it was composed during the last decade, did not adequately measure the qualities needed to be a good firefighter. Where the parties differ is on the best way to address the problem.

Mr. Coombs has called for scrapping the written test completely. Lieutenant Diaz opposes such a drastic step and thinks the exam should be tweaked to be more job-related. He asserted that, with proper recruitment efforts in place, a written exam can accomplish its original goal and actually be a bulwark against arbitrary hiring.

"When you stop taking a test, that's when minorities stop," he said, adding that former Fire Commissioner Augustus Beekman, the second African-American to hold the position, praised the exam system. Advocacy group Merit Matters, which opposes the DOJ's suit, has made the same argument.

Despite their differences, Lieutenant Diaz insists there is no bad blood between him and those who want the test changed. While he thinks the Vulcans are "doing themselves a disservice" with their lawsuit, he says he "understands their frustration."

'Hey, That's My Name'

Mr. Diaz also wants to reach out to future generations by sending Latinos to firehouses in their own neighborhoods. Because most fires take place in heavily minority areas, they are often the most-desirable assignments for younger firefighters eager for action. "Washington Heights, the Bronx, Bedford Stuyvesant: are these the premier neighborhoods?" he asked. "Yes. But [Latino firefighters] know the neighborhoods, they know the language, they know how to get people to trust the Fire Department better. They can get it to be a real community service. A real public service."

"A guy steps off a truck and has Santiago or Martinez or De La Vega on the back of his uniform," Lieutenant Diaz continued, "and a kid sees it and they say, 'Hey, that's my name.' You can't get a more-effective recruiting tool than that."

Lieutenant Garcia agrees that role models are key, but remains unconvinced that enough Latinos are getting hired. He said the problem isn't just the written exam. The background checks for whites are more lax, too, he said: witness former Firefighter Anthony "December" Cilento, who was charged in October with acting as an enforcer for the Bonanno crime family before joining the department.

"We [Latinos] went from 3 percent to 8 percent in 33 years, so at the rate we're going now, in 90 years we'll be at 23 percent," said Mr. Garcia. "Are we supposed to find that acceptable?"