Judge to Decide How City Should Recruit More Black Firefighters

A Brooklyn federal judge is set to begin hearing evidence Monday to decide what steps the city should take to recruit more black firefighters.

In the latest stage of a 4-year-old lawsuit, lawyers for the Vulcan Society — a fraternal society of black firefighters — will be asking the fire department to step up its game in recruiting more black firefighters.

Currently, about 3 percent of the FDNY is black, and Judge Nicholas Garaufis in the Eastern District of New York ruled last year that the fire department entrance exam discriminates against blacks.  

The city is redesigning that exam, but the Vulcan Society said that's not enough. They want to see more recruiters, more advertisements and more events in minority communities.  

"The best recruiting is firefighters themselves, and so since 93 percent of the firefighters are white, they are very effective at bringing their family members and friends into take the test," said Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents the Vulcan Society.  

Applying for a job with FDNY is a long, hard process, said Charney, so black firefighters need personal mentoring while they're applying.

In January 2010, Judge Garaufis found the city engaged in a pattern and practice of intentional discrimination against black firefighter candidates. 

He ruled that the written examinations the fire department used to screen and rank applicants between 1999 and 2007 "had discriminatory effects on certain minority applicants, including black applicants, and failed to test for relevant job skills."

The overarching legal issue Garaufis will now have to decide is how broad a legal remedy to grant black firefighters.  

The city said it is committed to increasing the diversity in the fire department and is willing to revamp its entrance exam, but argues that the court should be wary about micromanaging a local government operation by ordering specific recruiting activities.

"We're dealing with a 40-year pattern and practice of excluding black New Yorkers from the fire department," Charney said, "and it has had a really serious chilling effect on the black community. They, I think for good reason, don't believe that this is a job that's open to them."