The head of the city’s black firefighters group criticized the FDNY for failing to make significant progress in creating a “less hostile” atmosphere at fire stations, despite changes required by a groundbreaking civil rights lawsuit.
New York City fire stations remain hotbeds of racism and discrimination even after court orders and a settlement in the case reached in 2014, according to Regina Wilson, president of the Vulcan Society, which represents black firefighters.
“Several years have passed and our firefighters in the field are still trying to change the negative culture and traditions that are being forced upon us,” said Wilson, the Vulcan Society’s first female president. “We are sick of waiting, sick of being hazed, sick of being harassed, and sick of dealing with this.”
Wilson made the remarks at the end of a status conference in Brooklyn Federal Court last week to assess the city’s progress in implementing the lawsuit’s orders.
A massive downsizing at the FDNY’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity has delayed misconduct complaints from black members who feel they are being discriminated against by co-workers and superiors, Wilson said. As a result, the racially divisive atmosphere and attitudes at fire stations have not changed, she says.
“The Fire Department can do something to make fire stations less hostile and have a more professional atmosphere,” he said. “Our members come to their fire stations with their fists clenched because the officers don’t know how to handle (the problem).”
In remarks at the start of the conference, FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh admitted that “there is still work to be done.”
Kavanagh, the department’s first female commissioner, did not dispute Wilson’s comments. “It would have been inappropriate for the commissioner to talk back or interrupt her,” said an FDNY official who attended the conference.
Wilson said she was pleased that Kavanagh, who joined the Fire Department in 2014, has attended conferences on the status of the case since she was deputy commissioner. But Wilson said she “hoped that we would at least have a plan to deal with some of these issues.”
The status conference came as Kavanagh faces turmoil among FDNY top brass who, among other things, have bristled at his complaints that their bosses need to stop intimidating their subordinates.
Speaking Saturday at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters in Harlem, Kavanagh said the Vulcan Society created the legacy of change she pursues.
“What motivates me every day is when someone walks into my office and says they were bullied or harassed or not welcome at the fire station,” Kavanagh said. “They are who I work for. They are the ones I take on this fight for.
“The New York City Fire Department is a great place and does an amazing job, but a great place can be better. This place will be welcome to everyone.”
Sharpton defended Kavanagh’s stance towards bosses who criticized her and called for her to be demoted in rank and removed from FDNY headquarters.
“Some of the entrenched seniors (in the FDNY) feel they are owed their position instead of serving the city. They came after her,” Sharpton said. “We wanted you to know that we are all in favor of you changing the way you do things.
“As the deal has been in the past, it cannot be allowed to continue,” Sharpton added. “I need to open it up and make it fair. All (Kavanagh) is talking about is making it fair.”
The FDNY has struggled for decades to diversify its ranks.
In 2014, the city agreed to pay $98 million in back pay and benefits to aspiring minority firefighters in a settlement with the Vulcan Society, which accused the city of discrimination in a 2007 lawsuit.
In 2011, as the case moved through the courts, Brooklyn federal judge Nicholas Garaufis found that the firefighter exams intentionally discriminated against blacks. A federal appeals court overturned that decision, but upheld the remedies Garaufis ordered in the case.
Among those remedies was Garaufis’ appointment of a federal monitor to oversee the FDNY’s new recruiting, hiring and retention policies aimed at increasing the number of blacks and other minorities in the department.
Last November, just a month after naming Kavanagh’s fire commissioner, Mayor Adams signed a series of bills that would require the FDNY to implement a plan to hire more women and non-white firefighters, improve fire stations to accommodate women’s privacy and submit an annual report focused on the demographic makeup of the city’s fire stations.
City attorneys said more people of color have joined the FDNY thanks to changes in recruiting drives and orientations that help candidates prepare for the grueling physical requirements needed to become a city firefighter.
But people of color are still underrepresented in the department.
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As of October, the FDNY had 881 black firefighters, representing approximately 10% of the department, out of proportion to the city’s population, which according to the Census Bureau, approximately 23% are black. There were 1,417 Hispanic firefighters, representing approximately 17% of the city’s firefighting force. About 30% of the city’s population is Hispanic.
Nearly 70% of FDNY firefighters are white, city officials said. The city’s population is approximately 40% white.
Advocates for the Vulcan Society and the black community say a long-delayed “climate survey” that would focus on the department’s ongoing racial issues has stalled progress.
Garaufis, who oversaw last week’s state conference, said firefighters’ attitudes will change as more people of color join the FDNY.
“It’s a matter of having enough people of color that when the firehouse garage door falls down and firefighters are in the house, by virtue of necessity, they have to behave appropriately,” Garaufis said. .
“The court cannot make people impartial. If nothing else works, what will work is the numbers and the understanding that everyone is a professional.”
With Nicholas Williams