FDNY Aims to Boost Women, Minorities in Its Ranks

The Wall Street Journal - February 09, 2018

by Zolan Kanno-Youngs

Commissioner Daniel Nigro wants more than 50% of firefighters to be minority and 15% to be women in 12 years.

The New York City Fire Department commissioner said he wants more than 50% of firefighters to be minority and 15% to be women in 12 years—a sharp uptick from current levels.

Commissioner Daniel Nigro revealed the benchmarks during questioning from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson during a hearing on diversity in the fire department held by the council’s new committee on fire and emergency management. The department has long been criticized for its lack of minorities and women, which has resulted in multiple lawsuits over the years.

“The FDNY is simply out of step with other city agencies…when it comes to diversity,” Mr. Johnson said.

The first-term council speaker pressed Mr. Nigro on whether the lack of minorities and women created a culture that discouraged them, even those who passed an entry exam, from joining the department.

“One cannot deny it is difficult to convince the thousands of women in our city who are capable of doing the job of a firefighter that it is a career they would enjoy,” Mr. Nigro said. “We do believe that there is a tipping point.”

The fire department’s issues with diversity go back decades. Until 1972, only men were allowed to take the exam to become firefighters. Several lawsuits have since been filed against the FDNY for its application process, including a suit by the Department of Justice and the Vulcan Society, a group of black firefighters, contending the exams discriminated against black and Hispanic applicants.

A federal judge ruled in 2010 the city’s use of the exam constituted intentional discrimination. The FDNY settled the case in 2014 for $98 million and agreed to change its recruiting policies to increase diversity.

Last year, the fire department launched a $10 million recruiting campaign, which focused on reaching out to women and minorities, Mr. Nigro said.

To better reflect New York City, Mr. Nigro said he wants the minorities who make up 20% of the 11,000 firefighters in the department to grow to 50% within three entry-exam cycles. The tests to become a firefighter occur every four years.

First Deputy Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said the FDNY aims to increase the 68 female firefighters to about 1,650, or .6% of the force, in the same period.

Mr. Nigro noted the number of minorities who took the exam last year compared with four years ago—26,018 minorities took the exam in 2017, a 36% increase from four years ago. The number of women who took the test increased 115% to 4,181 from 1,948 during the same period.

However, many drop out during the time between taking the exam and getting hired, Ms. Kavanagh said, which tends to be four years.

“It’s certainly not an easy goal to reach but it is something we should be striving for,” Mr. Nigro said. “When you set a goal it should be something worth striving for rather than saying we’ll settle for 3%. That would be quite pessimistic on our part.”

Write to Zolan Kanno-Youngs at Zolan.Kanno-Youngs@wsj.com

Appeared in the February 9, 2018, print edition as 'FDNY Aims To Increase Minorities.'