Bill de Blasio Eyes Female Candidates to Run Fire Department

NY Daily News - December 31, 2013

by Ginger Adams Otis

For the first time since organized firefighting began in New York more than 350 years ago, a woman might be put in charge of the city's firefighters.

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's list of top candidates to run the Fire Department includes three women, the Daily News has learned.

The selection of any of them would represent seismic change for a department which has long faced criticism its ranks do not reflect the city's diversity.

But one of the three, retired fire Capt. Brenda Berkman, 62, also would be the first openly gay fire commissioner if she is selected.

She sued the department in 1982 to get women on the job and was captain of Engine Co. 204 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn when De Blasio, then a city councilman, was arrested protesting its planned closure in 2003.

Another of the female candidates, attorney Mylan Denerstein, 46, would be the first African-American woman commissioner. She was the department’s top attorney from 2003-2006 and now works in Gov. Cuomo’s administration.

Retired fire Chief Rochelle "Rocky" Jones is the third woman under consideration. Jones came up through the ranks alongside Berkman and was the first female fire captain in 1999 and its first female battalion chief in 2003.

Other contenders include retired Chief of Department Daniel Nigro, and the current commissioner, Salvatore Cassano, who has agreed to stay in the top job on an interim basis after de Blasio's inauguration.

Nigro and Denerstein are said to be at the top of the list, but other strong candidates include Deputy Commissioner Douglas White, an African-American who has played an important role in addressing the FDNY's diversity problem.

A source close to the Cuomo administration said Denerstein was expected to stay with Cuomo at least through the upcoming legislative session, which ends in June.

The historically all-male, mostly white department was hit with a civil rights lawsuit in 2007, filed by the Vulcan Society, the fraternal organization of black firefighters.

Brooklyn federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis upheld their claim of disparate impact, ruling that the FDNY's written entrance examination "unfairly excluded hundreds of qualified people of color" from 1999 to 2007.

As part of his ruling, Garaufis appointed a federal monitor to oversee diversity efforts within the department. As a result, minorities made up 62% of the most recent class of graduates from the department's training academy - the highest percentage yet.

But there are few women firefighters.

Currently, out of a force of 11,000, only 37 firefighters are women - roughly the same number that joined with Berkman following her discrimination lawsuit.

Testifying at a City Council hearing earlier this month on gender parity in the ranks, Berkman accused the FDNY of "repeating many of the same mistakes" that led to its poor recruitment of women in the past.

Other names said to be under consideration include the current Chief of Department Edward Kilduff; retired Chief Phil Parr, who is African-American; and retired Chief of Operations Robert Sweeney, who now serves as the Yonkers fire commissioner.

With Kenneth Lovett and Bill Hutchinson