Monitor ordered to watch over NY Fire Dept. hiring

October 5, 2011 - 9:05 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — An independent monitor must be appointed to watch over an effort to make the Fire Department of New York more diverse, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

Judge Nicholas Garaufis gave his findings following a civil trial last month in Brooklyn where high-ranking fire officials testified on the inner workings of the nation's largest department. In his ruling, Garaufis said the court-appointed monitor would assess the recruitment, testing and hiring of new firefighters for a period of at least 10 years.

He had already decided the city's firefighter entrance exam discriminated against minorities, and on Wednesday tasked the monitor with reviewing recruitment and overhauling the post-exam screening process to stamp out nepotism and favoritism, and ensure the department is complying with Equal Employment Opportunity laws.

Garaufis wrote that the legal action was simply the most recent effort in a 40-year struggle to integrate the department. "While the city's other uniformed services and fire departments across the country have changed to reflect the communities they serve, employment as a New York City firefighter ... remained a stubborn bastion of white male privilege," he wrote.

In a city of 8 million where more than half the population belongs to a racial or ethnic minority, 9 percent of the 11,200 uniformed firefighters are black or Hispanic.

Garaufis wrote that the persistence of discrimination was a "shameful blight on the records of the six mayors of this city who failed to take responsibility for doing what was necessary to end it."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg responded by saying no previous administration has done more to attract diversity to the FDNY.

"Our commissioners have worked ceaselessly, tirelessly to make sure that everybody, every community, knows what a great job this is and try to convince them to join the world's greatest fire department," Bloomberg said. "More than 61,000 people applied, half of them minorities, shattering any previous record for minority applicants," the mayor added.

The city's law department said it would appeal as soon as the law allowed.

A black fraternal FDNY organization called the Vulcan Society complained about a decade ago, charging that the exam given to FDNY applicants was littered with SAT-like questions that didn't adequately test for firefighting skills. The exam is the weightiest factor in determining whether a candidate gets on a hiring list; a physical test and a few other components also play a role.

The Justice Department eventually took up the case and sued, and Garaufis ruled in 2009 in favor of the Vulcan Society and the Justice Department. In a separate decision, the judge said the test was being used to discriminate intentionally and called it a "stain" on an otherwise sterling department.

Darius Charney, an attorney for the Vulcan Society, said the court monitor was the beginning of long-overdue changes that could transform the department.

"I think it's clear from today's decision that the city is going to have to do a lot more than fix the test to remedy 40 years of discrimination against black and Hispanic firefighter candidates."

No new firefighters are being hired until the new exam — which is supposed to be given in January 2012.

Meanwhile, the city has made strides in recruiting minority candidates — an effort it says was not brought on by the legal fight. Applicants no longer need college credits and can apply if they graduated from high school and held a full-time job for six months or served in the military.

Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano testified that the department has recruited almost twice as many black candidates for its upcoming exam as it did for the last one as it steps up its outreach to minorities. Cassano said nearly 17,000 people applied to take the test and 15 percent were black — compared with only 8 percent for the last test, in 2007. The overall number of minority applicants stayed steady at 40 percent. The application period ended Sept. 15.

Garaufis ordered both sides to come up with a list of potential candidates for the monitor position. A hearing will be held Oct. 20.