By Ariama C. Long
Speaker Adrienne Adams and the City Council are set to push a package of bills that hope to improve the diversity, equity and inclusion practices at the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY), known for its white “boy’s club” working environment.
The FDNY has historically lacked gender and racial diversity among its firefighters, though Black men have been firefighters since the 1920s and Black women since the 1980s. According to the Council’s Committee on Fire and Emergency Management committee report, currently 76% of the department’s firefighters are white, 8% are Black, 13% are Hispanic, and 2% are Asian. Less than 1% of the department’s firefighters are women.
“No one can doubt the incredible work that New York City firefighters undertake every day. In addition to fires, our heroic FDNY firefighters respond to vehicle collisions, downed wires and floods,” said Adams. “Unfortunately, the makeup of the FDNY is still not representative of our great city.”
The bills take aim at the issues around recruitment and retention of diverse firefighters, confront exclusionary practices, and increase transparency at the FDNY. Among other things, the bills would require a public report on complaints filed with the Department’s Equal Employment Opportunities Office (EEO), which Black firefighters say are routinely ignored.
“We inherently go towards danger while everyone’s going the other way and to have someone commit to saving lives at the risk of their own, you don’t want somebody coming to work worrying about how they’re being treated by someone wearing the same uniform and performing the same task and duties,” said Captain Dellon Morgan of the 1st Division and Black Vulcan Firefighter Society President. “It’s just too much.”
In 2007, the Black Vulcan Firefighter Society filed and won a lawsuit against the FDNY for continued discrimination in the exam process towards Black and Latino applicants. The lawsuit wasn’t settled until 2014.
Morgan said that his authority is often challenged and while he can correct “bad behavior” pointing out instances of discrimination is almost “not worth it” because there’s hardly visible justice and consequences.
Firefighter Regina Wilson has been with the FDNY for 23 years. She said that female firefighters like her have to deal with sexual assault, harassment, and racism in the workplace.
“We’ve had these horrific George Floyd memes that went around, people taking pictures of the white power sign, pictures of Trump in the firehouse in a general costume,” said Wilson. “We had firefighters down there on Jan. 6th and we’ve had captains call civilians niggers. We’ve had a whole host of things that we’ve had to remove ourselves from in order to work for this agency.”
It was ruled in federal court that the FDNY discriminated against racial minorities in its written test in 1973 and again against women in 1982.
Firefighter Anita Daniel said that she’s had to file numerous complaints with EEO, which come back unsubstantiated, and she is “emotionally drained” from her experience in the department. In the most recent incident, Daniel said that Captain Chris Livolsi allegedly “slapped her behind” in the FDNY auditorium in July. She no longer trusts EEO and resorted to filing a police report for forcible touching instead of keeping the complaint in house. She provided a copy of the report to the Amsterdam News.
Race and gender are not the only areas of discrimination at the FDNY, there’s a sizable pay gap around uniformed and non-uniformed officers.
Fire inspectors, who operate as safety and fire prevention officers, and EMS are making headway in their racial pay discrimination lawsuit against the FDNY. Their claim is that their salaries are not comparable to other agencies that do similar work because their workforce has been over 70% Black, people of color, and women since 2000. There is no pathway for advancement in title or being a firefighter from an inspector position.
Darryl Chalmers, FDNY deputy chief inspector, and President of Local 2507 Oren Barzilay said that even though fire inspectors have “uniformed status” they are still regarded as civilians and paid less.
Chalmers explained that uniformed status was given to the firefighters back in the 1960s. Prior to that they were on the same bargaining certificate for city contracts as the teachers and other city employees. In 2005 fire inspectors were added to that list.
“They see only firefighters as uniformed personnel,” said Barzilay. “That in itself is discriminatory in our eyes.”
Furthermore, the 2022 city council pay equity report found that the FDNY firefighter title is still held almost entirely by male employees while non-uniformed titles are 57% female.
When considering the staggering racial and ethnic pay disparity within the city’s municipal workforce, the high percentage of white uniformed employees stands out, said the report.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w