Vulcans Push Council Bill For City H.S. Test Credit

Chief Leader - December 22, 2009

by ARI PAUL

A bill intended to increase racial diversity in the Fire Department that would give eight points on the hiring exam to Firefighter candidates who graduated from a city high school is making headway in the City Council, although the largest fire union opposes the measure.

The Civil Service and Labor Committee Dec. 14 heard testimony on the bill, which is sponsored by Councilman Leroy Comrie and has the support of the Vulcan Society of black firefighters, the FDNY Hispanic Society and United Women Firefighters.

Vulcan Society President John Coombs said that 50 percent of Firefighters live outside of the city, claiming that this meant tax dollars left the city without being reinvested in its economy.

"That is close to over $410 million that we know leaves the city annually," Firefighter Coombs said. "That is financial irresponsibility."

The FDNY lags behind other city agencies and fire departments elsewhere in terms of racial diversity; slightly more than 7 percent or the firefighting force is black or Latino, while that number ranges between 25 percent and 55 percent in fire departments in Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago.

Candidates already receive five points for city residency, but the Vulcans argued that city residency was too easily faked.

"That's been an issue in my short 11 years in the Fire Department," Mr. Coombs said. "People will get addresses from cousins, uncles, relatives, they'll use for the period needed and there's no real investigation as to whether that one truly lives in a particular address. So that's why it's allowed to happen. The Fire Department at this time—I'm not taking their side—but I can see how they don't have enough investigators."

He added that Mr. Comrie's bill would augment attempts by the FDNY to recruit minority members.

"We're saying to these young men and women 'an opportunity is here,' greater than you have ever [seen] before," he said.

UFA: Wrong Approach

In written testimony, Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy said, "We already have a five-point city residency credit in place. Better verification of eligibility for this credit would be more prudent than granting a credit for anyone that attends a NYC high school."

He continued, "There are many private high schools in NYC that a large percentage of the student population comes from outside of the five boroughs. Some of those schools are as high as 50 percent. This credit would benefit applicants that do not live in NYC but were fortunate enough to attend a high school in NYC. In addition there are other schools that are outside of NYC that NYC residents attend. These students would be at a disadvantage for attending a school outside NYC even though they live within the five boroughs."

The UFA has often been at odds with the Vulcan Society, although Mr. Cassidy has criticized the department for not devoting proper resources to minority recruitment.

The committee is expected to vote on the bill as early as next month when the Council reconvenes. The bill also has the support of Council Members Ydanis Rodriguez, Charles Barron, Darlene Mealy and Thomas White.

'A Color-Blind Solution'

A Federal judge ruled this year in a case brought jointly by the Vulcans and the U.S. Department of Justice that two written exams for Firefighter had wrongful disparate impact on minority test-takers. While a subsequent written exam in 2007 yielded a more-diverse field, and the department's last graduating class of Firefighters was the most racially diverse in its history, the Vulcans maintain that the FDNY still has a long way to go.

"This is something that will affect positively all New York City residents regardless of race," former Vulcan Society President Paul Washington said of the bill. "It's a color-blind solution that not will increase the percentage of city residents who become firefighters but also increase diversity within the Fire Department."