New York lawmakers announced new legislation on Monday that would require the FDNY to hire more women and minority firefighters, the latest push to diversify an agency that has been repeatedly sued for discriminating against non-white applicants.
The legislation would require the FDNY to develop and implement a plan by March 1st to ensure firefighters “reflect that of the city’s population as a whole.” Currently, more than three-quarters of firefighters are white men, and less than 1% are women.
The package would also broaden transparency requirements within the department, while mandating the FDNY survey each firehouse to identify facility upgrades needed to achieve a safe environment for a mixed-gender workforce.
The credibility of our agencies is connected to their being reflective of those they serve
The bills follow several other legislative attempts to solve the agency’s diversity problems – a threat not just to equity, but to the “fundamental safety of all New Yorkers,” according to Council Speaker Adrienne Adams.
“The credibility of our agencies is connected to their being reflective of those they serve,” Adams said at a hearing on Monday. “And the FDNY is a pivotal agency to public safety.”
Since 2011, a federal monitor has overseen the fire department’s recruiting practices, after a judge found the agency “remained a stubborn bastion of white male privilege."
The ruling followed a suit brought by the Vulcan Society, a Black firefighters group, accusing the department of discriminating against minorities through its civil service exam.
In her testimony on Monday, the FDNY’s acting fire commissioner, Laura Kavanaugh, who is also the first woman to lead the department, said she supported the council bills.
She said the department had updated its training and exam program, in addition to expanding its efforts to recruit candidates from underrepresented groups.
But even as fire officials touted their efforts to improve diversity, they acknowledged a host of structural obstacles to bringing more women and minorities to the agency.
They blamed a pandemic pause in hiring, low retirement rates among existing firefighters, and a high number of prospective candidates who take other jobs during the years-long waiting period to become a firefighter.
Those who come from firefighter families – and who are more likely to be white men – were better equipped to navigate the complicated process between applying to the FDNY and actually becoming a firefighter, Kavanaugh said.
“It’s hard to ask a young person to wait years for this job unless they know the value on the other end,” she added.
But those who have spent years pushing for changes in the department said the agency’s leaders still weren’t doing enough to address the problem.
Promised reforms, such as ensuring bathrooms for women in firehouses and cracking down on complaints of racism, have proven hollow, according to Regina Wilson, the president of the Vulcan Society.
“Progress was made, but not enough to change the deep rooted issues that plague the department,” she said. “If you look at the history of the fire department, it has never been a willing participant of inclusion for anyone other than white males.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams did not respond to a request for a comment on the bill package.