On Tuesday, July 7, Brooklyn Historical Society hosted a book talk with Ginger Adams Otis, author of Firefight: The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York’s Bravest, a book about the traditions and infrastructure that shape the FDNY and the impressive men and women of color who have fought for institutional change. Otis was joined by three members of the Vulcan Society, an organization focused on increasing the number of minority groups represented in the FDNY. Members of the Vulcan Society included Regina Wilson, President of the Vulcan Society, Captain Paul Washington, former president of the Vulcan Society, and Lieutenant Michael Marshall, former Vice President of the Vulcan Society and current Fire Department Diversity Advocate.
Otis began the evening with a viewing of excerpts from Black Smoke, Black Skin, a documentary courtesy of George T. Nierenberg that chronicles the history of black firefighters in the FDNY. The film depicts the work that the Vulcan Society and others have done to diversify the FDNY, and also how difficult this journey has been.
Ginger Adam Otis presents Black Smoke, Black Skin, a documentary that captures the history of black firefighters in the FDNY.
A major turning point for integration of the FDNY came in 2014 with the settlement of United States and Vulcan Society vs. City of New York, a lawsuit brought against the FDNY claiming that the department used racially discriminatory hiring practices. The settlement resulted in immediate changes in the FDNY’s hiring practices by creating programs to promote the hiring of Black and Latino men and women, creating the position of Chief Diversity Officer, and awarding $98 million for victims of discrimination. Since then, the FDNY hired its most diverse class in history, with 17% Black and 24% Latino firefighters.
As Otis explained, the racial demographics spoke for themselves at the time of the filing of the lawsuit in 2002, and despite improvements since then, they remain uneven today. In one of the most diverse cities in the world where the black population is 26% of the general population, Black firefighters only make up a total 3% of the FDNY, even though that makes the current 570 black firefighters an all-time high.
Otis explains the story of Wesley Williams, the FDNY’s first black firefighter.
Firefight focuses on the story of one of the first Black firefighters, Wesley Williams. While technically the third African American man hired by the FDNY, he was the first to get put on assignments and save people’s lives during fires. Williams also was one of the founding members of the Vulcan Society.
The Vulcan Society has received a lot of criticism from the FDNY and other organizations for one of their primary efforts: to change the fire academy’s examinations. Captain Paul Washington, a 27-year-veteran of the FDNY and former president of the Vulcan Society, explained that the test, a written exam, unfairly discriminates against minority applicants without truly testing their ability as firefighters. Washington said that “the fire department gives the test and on the written test, Blacks are on the bottom of the list, but that would be fine if the test tested for how good a firefighter you were going to be.”
Panelists noted that another problem with the assessment of fire academy students was the disparity in dismissals due to the medical examinations, where only 12% of white students were disqualified as opposed to the 30% of Black students. Lieutenant Michael Marshall, a 33-year veteran of the FDNY, shared his own experience with discrimination on the medical exam: The FDNY medical examiners disqualified him because of a minor discrepancy on his hearing exam, and it was only after an understanding medical officer realized it would not affect his abilities as a firefighter that he was given a passing grade.
Vulcan Society President, Regina Wilson, talks about the demographics of women in the FDNY.
Regina Wilson, President of the Vulcan Society explained that the staggering low percentage of women in the FDNY is a major problem in the appointment process as well. Share said that “We are still dealing with trying to get basic human rights. We still don’t have female bathrooms in some firehouses to this day.” Among the 10,628 NYC firefighters, only 46 are women. In an effort to promote change, Mayor de Blasio’s administration signed the FDNY Diversity Legislation on June 2 requiring the FDNY to track the ethnic and gender make up at each hiring stage. You can learn more about that decision in this Village Voice article.
The event concluded with follow-up questions from a lively audience about changes in the examinations administered by the fire academies. Vulcan Society President Wilson concluded that “change is hard for the fire department and we need to make sure we’re etched in stone. We’re going to stay where we are. We’re never going to move.”
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