Letter to the Editor of "The Chief"
Civil Service Newspaper and
the New York City Council
Civil Service Newspaper and
the New York City Council
I find it necessary to make a statement on behalf of the FDNY Hispanic Society. Over the last several months statements made in the media & news print have implied that since The FDNY Hispanic Society represents a minority group then we must automatically be part of any and all statements, law suits, or allegations of inequality made about or toward the FDNY. My previous statements have been taken out of context. The Hispanic Society and the Vulcan Society share similar issues, wants and needs, we just go about securing and/or rectifying them in different ways. Our organizations do not always see eye to eye but we well respect each other’s point of view. At the end of the day both organizations, as well as the Women Firefighters Association, The FireFlag/EMSs, Asian etc all want to increase their own representation within the ranks of NYC Firefighters. I respect what the Vulcan Society has achieved in respect to successfully bringing public attention to the lack of diversity in the ranks of the FDNY and this lack of diversity should trouble us all.
I want to clear up our stance on the credit preference issue for firefighter entrance exams. We are not in favor of an 8-point High School preference credit in addition to 5 points for residency. The truth is that these are two bills the Hispanic Society addressed and considered years ago. We chose then to support the residency preference requirement, which was eventually passed. What we would like to see is to have the 5-point residency requirement honestly enforced. There is no 5 points preference when everyone and anyone can claim it and use it. This has been the practice for too long. If the NYC Fire Department candidate investigation division does not have the manpower or resources to verify the residency requirement then maybe a High School Diploma will be easier to verify and harder to forge. I believe now, as I always have, that the residency and/or the High School preference bills are economic bills rather than a minority advantage. The salaries that are paid to 60% of our firefighters who live outside the city are spent outside the city. If more of these firefighters lived in the inner city this salary revenue would re-circulate within a budget strapped city. With so many budget cuts on the horizon we can use all the help we can get. It does not matter what race you are. If you live in NYC, you were educated here, you posses home grown knowledge beneficial to this job. You understand the buildings, the traffic, the subway system, the people, the difference in the culture of Manhattan vs. the culture of Brooklyn, or even the Bronx. Regardless of race, creed, color, sex, etc, you should get preference for that knowledge over someone who wants to work here but has not mastered that knowledge yet. For years our very own suburban communities have given preference to their residents who wish to be police officers for the same reasons and no one disputes that. Why is it a problem when New York residents ask for the same consideration?
In 1980 I learned about the firefighter exam in “The Chief civil service Leader” newspaper. I found info in “The Chief” about tutoring classes to prepare for the written test. I found info of physical training course at a Brooklyn Armory by a “Firefighter Walsh” to prepare for the physical portion. I took advantage of all. I passed a written test, a physical test, a psychological test, a background investigation, a medical evaluation and was appointed to the Fire Academy in the summer of 1984. At that time “The Chief” was the only reliable source of information about the test other than word of mouth. In that first class of the list I remember there were only two African Americans out of 350 candidates. One of the two was Paul Washington, who later achieves the rank of Captain while also being President of the Vulcan Society. I don’t know exactly how many Hispanics there were but I knew no more than 6. In the 1980s there were less then 700 black Firefighters and less the 300 Hispanic Firefighters (only one Hispanic female firefighter) in the 12,000 Firefighter work force. Today we have 369 Black Firefighters and 735 Hispanic Firefighters, (7 total Hispanic Female firefighters, 4 of the 7 all came on together on the last 2008 class). The Hispanic representation has doubled while the number of African American Firefighters has significantly decreased. The City and The Fire Department misleads its citizens and my fellow firefighters by combing the diversity number of EMS uniformed EMT/Paramedics with the number of Firefighters. EMS has no problem displaying diversity because it was already diverse when the FDNY took charge of it over 10 years ago. I know because I once wore the all green uniform of an EMT when EMS was run by the Health and Hospital Corporation.
Why has the New York City Fire Department failed to reflect the community that it serves for so long? This is a great job that continues to be passed down from father to son. Word of mouth has been a very successful recruitment tool for the FDNY for decades. The firefighter entrance exam is given approximately every 3 years. It takes a potential candidate approximately 2- 5 years from the date of test to be appointed. In the past when the 6-week filing period window opened the city would send a package of some 50 applications to each firehouse for the public. Each firehouse has a roster of 25 Firefighters. If each firefighter took two applications for their friends, neighbors or family members then the general public understandably never saw one. Another fact is our family members generally tend to be of the same race or color. Today, as in the past, by word of month, if each member of our total 12,000 firefighters went out and recruited just two family members we would have 369 black firefighters recruiting 678 candidates, 735 Hispanics would bring in 1, 470 Hispanic candidates and 10, 896 non-minorities would bring in 21,792 non-minority candidates. Each firefighter entrance exam has yielded at least 30,000 test takers and the city generally appoints an average of 1500 firefighters off any one list.
So we have a problem. But is really a test or something more. Smarter, more educated people then I have studied the situation and found that the test is the problem. I personally don’t know exactly. I do know this. When we put real honest recruitment to the test, the results come in. In 2008 we had the most diverse class of probationary firefighters in the history of the NYC Fire Department. This was no accident. It came from the largest recruitment effort ever made by the NYC Fire Department. 68 out of 350 probationary firefighters were Hispanic, 4 of those 68 were females. Of course we need to do better and we are but some understandably feel not fast enough. The city is 27% Hispanic. I am not saying the Fire Department needs to be 27% Hispanic or 60% people of color. The truth is that I don’t think in the city of New York if we have 50% doctors, dentists, carpenters, engineers, lawyers, mechanics, nail salon owners, fruit stands, etc. There will always be an uneven number somewhere. That in itself makes our city special.
Is the test unfair? I was born in NYC and English was my second language as I spoke only Spanish until I entered the NYC public school system. I have Hispanic Society members who were not born in this country that came here, studied here, passed the test and are appointed firefighters. I agree that no written test can prove what kind of Firefighter one will be. That’s because firefighting takes several talents and abilities into account. No written test can test athletic abilities but firefighters must be fit, strong and disciplined enough to do what the average citizen can’t. No written test can test one’s mechanical abilities with tools but in time of stressful emergencies firefighters must be able to adapt and improvise with whatever is available in hand to get the job done regardless of what obstacles are placed in front of them. The NYC Fire Department has volumes of written field proven training material passed on by seasoned brother firefighters before us. Every Officer in this Department had to dedicate countless hours of studying a portion of that written material to be more knowledgeable then his Band of Brother firefighters trying to earn the grade to be appointed the rank. The FDNY is paramilitary. Firefighters must not only know how to follow training, orders and instructions but also must be able to know the where, when & how to take the initiative and think outside the box. The public expects it and deserves it. The written test is a necessary part of the entire process. But does 5 points on any test really make one firefighter better then the next? I have known many non-minorities that did not pass the written test. I have known many non-minorities that passed the written but not the physical. They too never became Firefighters.
The Hispanic Society is totally against lowering any standards. New York City is the greatest and most popular city in the world. It deserves the best of the best to protect it. It is insulting to all Hispanics to allege that we are incapable of passing a written exam. There may be many contributing factors as to why many minorities don’t make it to the academy and they all must be evaluated. But once in the academy, our record of success is outstanding and undeniable. Is the test unfair? We can’t blame it all on the inner city school systems. I’m a product of it. So are our first Hispanic Fire Commissioner Carlos Rivera and our Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor. The test questions are made up, evaluated, and contributed up to DCAS by a diverse panel of active firefighters. DCAS has the final word on which questions will be used and the format on how they are presented but Firefighter input is considerable.
When given the opportunity Hispanics assimilate well into every occupation and this one is no exception. In the 1970s as a Marine, the United States Marine Corp had diversity there. In 2001 when the 343 firefighters were killed in the World Trade Center, Hispanic Firefighters were among them. In 2002 during my “Enduring Freedom Campaign” overseas I found diversity among my troops. In 2010 when we still find that the FDNY is the least diverse of any Fire Department in a major city in the entire United States it surprises me that all my brother firefighters are not offended by this. We must take notice and find out why. We are not asking for a “hand out” but there is a real problem. To allow this question of integrity of the job we claim to love and protect so much and not be shouting from the rooftops to have this issue resolved once and for all is beyond comprehension. Those who fight to remedy this unfortunate black eye without bringing sound solutions to the table I question their true allegiance. I do not want to give the public or my hopeful future firefighters the impression that the FDNY is fortress of racism or hatred. On the contrary no greater brotherhood outside of a military squad in theatre will you find anywhere. As citizens, as Americans, an injustice to one is an injustice to all. We owe it ourselves to try and really find the problem. I truly believe the solution lies in honest true recruitment.
We, as Hispanics are no different then any other ethic group that came before us. Hispanics have assimilated and have contributed in every aspect of American life. Hispanics have fought and even won Medals of Honor in every US involved war. We have passed every test brought before us. We have & will continue to adjust, adapt and improvise as everyone else.
In 1962 five Hispanic members of the FDNY got together and founded the FDNY Hispanic Society. In that same year The Hispanic Society’s by-laws were written and have not changed much since then. The mission statement stated then, as it does today, “its purpose is uniting and improving the quality of life for its members, as well as to contribute to the civic and cultural endeavors of the Hispanic community at large.” Today, our duty to continue to fulfill that mission is stronger, truer & more vital than ever.
Lt. George Diaz, President FDNY Hispanic Society