'Most-Diverse' Fire Class, But Vulcans Unconvinced; 35% Minorities Among 286 Grads

Chief Leader - December 23, 2008

by ARI PAUL

Thirteen months ago, when the city announced that increased recruiting efforts resulted in minorities being 38 percent of the applicants who passed the most recent Firefighter exam, John Coombs, the president of the Vulcan Society of black firefighters, held his applause and said, "When those individuals come out of the Academy, then we can have a press conference."

On Dec. 15, the time seemed right for Mr. Coombs to alert the media. The Fire Department held a graduation ceremony for 286 Probationary Firefighters, 35 percent of whom were minorities. By contrast, only 11 percent of the current firefighting force is black or Latino.

'Most-Diverse in FDNY History'

"Your class is the most-diverse class in Fire Department history and you hail from all parts of the city," Mayor Bloomberg told the graduates on the hangar deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. "You are all Firefighters who proudly reflect the city you serve."

But Mr. Coombs, whose organization is a co-plaintiff in a Federal lawsuit charging that two previous Firefighter exams were biased against minorities, was not ready to salute the FDNY.

"The main verdict isn't in yet," he said after the ceremony. "This was only two classes from that list. They're getting a percentage of more-diversified candidates, but the list hasn't been exhausted."

He added, "Perhaps we gained a few more blacks in the class, but again that's no true indicator of what's to come."

Mr. Coombs praised the increased recruitment efforts in minority communities. For the 2006 exam, FDNY recruiters went to 2,600 events to encourage people to take the Firefighter exam, compared to 278 gatherings prior to the 2002 exam, which is one of the two challenged in the Vulcan lawsuit.

Intensive Recruiting At Risk?

He feared, however, that with the department set to make cutbacks, including ending night tours at some companies and possible layoffs, that the recruitment efforts might be scaled back as well.

"We're optimistic," Mr. Coombs said. "If this continues, in the future there's a chance for city residents to have a great career that those in the fire service now enjoy."

Missing from the new minority graduates was Jamel Sears, who collapsed and died Nov. 11 during training at the Fire Academy on Randall's Island. His family was in attendance and honored at last week's ceremony.