The head of the city’s Black firefighters group bashed the FDNY for not making significant progress in creating a “less hostile” atmosphere at firehouses — despite changes required by a groundbreaking civil rights lawsuit.
New York City firehouses remain hotbeds of racism and discrimination even after judicial orders and a settlement in the case reached in 2014, according to Regina Wilson, the president of the Vulcan Society, which represents Black firefighters.
“It’s been a number of years and our firefighters in the field are still out there trying to change the negative culture and traditions hoisted upon us,” said Wilson, the first woman president of the Vulcan Society. “We’re sick of waiting, sick of being hazed, sick of being harassed and sick of dealing with this.”
Wilson made the comments at the end of a status conference in Brooklyn Federal Court last week held to assess the city’s progress in implementing the lawsuit’s orders.
A massive staff reduction at the FDNY’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office has delayed misconduct complaints by 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 the firehouses haven’t changed, she says.
“The Fire Department can do something to make firehouses less hostile and have a more professional atmosphere,” she said. “Our members come into their firehouses with their fists balled because officers don’t know how to handle [the problem].”
In remarks at the beginning of the conference, FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh admitted “there is still work to be done.”
Kavanagh, the department’s first woman commissioner, did not challenge Wilson’s comments. “It would have been inappropriate for the commissioner to respond or interrupt her,” said an FDNY official who attended the conference.
Wilson said she was gratified that Kavanagh, who joined the Fire Department in 2014, has attended status conferences in the case since being a deputy commissioner. But Wilson said she “expected that we would at least have a plan to deal with some of these issues.”
The status conference was held as Kavanagh faces turmoil among the FDNY’s top brass who among other things bristled at her complaints that her chiefs need to stop bullying 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 is pursuing.
“What motivates me every day is when someone comes into my office and says that they were bullied or harassed or not welcome in the firehouse,” Kavanagh said. “They’re the ones I work for. They’re the ones I take on this fight for.
“The New York City Fire Department is a phenomenal place and does extraordinary work but a great place can be better. This place will be welcome to everyone.”
Sharpton defended Kavanagh’s stance toward the chiefs who have criticized her and asked to be demoted in rank and moved out of FDNY headquarters.
“Some of the old entrenched folks [in the FDNY] feel they are owed their position rather than serve the city. They came after her,” Sharpton said. “We wanted her to know we are all for you shaking up how you do things.
“The way the deal was in the past, it can’t be allowed to continue,” Sharpton added. “Need to open it up and make it fair. All (Kavanagh’s) 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 court settlement with the Vulcan Society, which accused the city of discrimination in a 2007 lawsuit.
In 2011, as the case was proceeding through the courts, Brooklyn Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis found that firefighter exams intentionally discriminated against Blacks. A federal appeals court overturned that finding — but it upheld the remedies Garaufis ordered in the case.
Among those remedies was Garaufis’ appointment of a federal monitor to oversee new FDNY recruitment, hiring and retention policies aimed at increasing the number of Blacks and other minorities in the department.
Last November, just a month after appointing Kavanagh fire commissioner, Mayor Adams signed a series of bills that would require the FDNY to implement a plan to hire more women and nonwhite firefighters, upgrade firehouses to accommodate women’s privacy and submit an annual report focused on the demographic composition of firehouses around the city.
City attorneys said more people of color have joined the FDNY thanks to changes in recruitment campaigns and orientations that help candidates prepare for the grueling physical requirements needed to become a city firefighter.
But people of color are still under-represented in the department.
As of October, the FDNY had 881 Black firefighters, making up about 10% of the department — out of proportion with the city’s population, which according to the Census Bureau is about 23% Black. There were 1,417 Hispanic firefighters, making up roughly 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 about 40% white.
The Vulcan Society and Black community advocates say a long-delayed “climate survey” which would zero in on the department’s current racial issues has stalled progress.
Garaufis, who oversaw last week’s status conference, said firehouse attitudes will change as more people of color join the FDNY.
“It’s a question of having a sufficient number of people of color so when the firehouse garage door comes down and firefighters are in the house they must by virtue of necessity behave in an appropriate manner,” Garaufis said.
“The court can’t make people unbiased. If nothing else works, what will work is numbers and the understanding that everybody is a professional.”
With Nicholas Williams
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