Firefighter Regina Wilson, flanked by then-FDNY Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and Mayor Bloomberg in 2007.

Photo by: FDNY

Firefighter Regina Wilson, flanked by then-FDNY Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and Mayor Bloomberg in 2007.

Firefighter Wilson is the “senior man” at Engine 219 in Brooklyn. So, at a fire, Wilson handles the nozzle—a tough job for any member of the FDNY. But Firefighter Wilson is not like most FDNY members, because Firefighter Wilson is not a man. So, unlike her male colleagues, if the facepiece on her breathing apparatus breaks, the spare units that battalion chiefs carry are unlikely to fit her smaller face.

As a black woman, 12-year FDNY veteran Regina Wilson embodies two separate, decades-old and ongoing battles over how the fire department is staffed. In the early 1970s, black firefighters went to federal court claiming that the FDNY’s hiring practices illegally discriminated on the basis of race. They won, forcing the FDNY to use a strict 3-to-1, white-to-minority hiring ratio for several years. Later that decade, women who wanted to fight fires sued over the department’s physical screening. They won too.

After the latter court ruling, the city changed its physical test and hired 41 female firefighters. But now there are only 29 women among the 11,000 people who wear FDNY uniforms—a fraction of 1 percent. By comparison, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., 24 percent of the fire department is female.

Meanwhile, the presence of racial and ethnic minorities in the FDNY—in 2007 about 3.4 percent of firefighters were black and 6.7 percent Latino—lags behind other cities, like Los Angeles, where the LAFD is 30 percent Latino, and Chicago, whose firefighting force is 20 percent black.

The Vulcan Association of black firefighters sued the city in 2007 alleging that the written exams used by the FDNY in 1999 and 2003 discriminated against blacks and Latinos. Ninety percent of whites passed the ’99 test, compared with 60 percent of blacks and 77 percent of Latinos. The numbers improved dramatically with the 2003 test, with 97 percent of whites, 85 percent of blacks and 93 percent of Latinos passing—but among those who passed, blacks and Hispanics tended to be ranked lower than whites, so that of the 5,300 firefighters hired from both exams, only 184 were black and 461 Latino.

In 2010, federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled that the 1999 and 2003 exams had illegally discriminated, because they had an obvious disparate impact on minorities and because the city had—in the judge’s view—not demonstrated a firm link between the test and the actual requirements of a firefighter’s job.

After a stepped-up recruitment campaign, a far higher number of blacks and Hispanics took the most recent FDNY test in 2007, and minorities made up a third of those whose scores were high enough to make hiring likely. The number of women who passed increased by half.

But Garaufis said that test was also poorly designed and stopped the city from using its results. The two sides recently agreed that a new firefighter test will be given later this year, but they still need to come together on the test questions.

Wilson took her exam in 1992 but wasn’t hired until seven years later. When she graduated from the fire academy and began at her first firehouse, “It wasn’t bad,” she says. “They didn’t treat me bad. I think they were kind of afraid of me as well as me being afraid of them.”

A recent report by the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services estimated that on the basis of the number of women in other blue-collar professions, in the absence of discrimination, 17 percent of firefighters would be women. Wilson would settle for 500, or even 100, at the FDNY but adds, “In my time on the job we might not even see the original 41.”

The fight over women in firefighting focused on the physical test, which a court found unreasonably emphasized brute strength over endurance. Changes to the test since then have stirred resentment among some male firefighters that the physical test—which consists of a timed series of tasks related to firefighting, like lifting ladders and dragging hose—has been made too easy.

The questions of racial disparities, on the other hand, concern the 85-question multiple-choice written test that FDNY candidates take. Critics say a written test is a poor method for selecting firefighters. “You really can’t measure who’s going to do well on [firefighting] with a pencil-and-paper test that happens in a nice sort-of classroom,” the Vulcans’ lawyer, Shayana Kadidal, said in a 2009 television interview. “By and large, firefighting has been a sort of an apprentice kind of job over the years, something where you learn how to do it on the job.”

Over the past decade, the department has reduced the eligibility requirements for the test. “You used to need a year of college [to take the exam] ,” says former FDNY commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta. “Now you need six months of gainful employment. You could be bagging groceries.”

Critics claim the 1999 and 2003 tests benefited those who have some knowledge of firefighting, perhaps from a father or uncle. The city denies that the past exams tested anything other than common sense. The reason for the racial disparity, the city argues, is that different groups of people perform at different levels on tests. There is some evidence to support that contention: Nationwide on the math section of SATs taken by college seniors in 2008, Asians scored an average of 44 points higher than whites, and whites scored 109 points higher than blacks. The disparities on the SAT and the FDNY exam could reflect differences in the quality of high schools that different groups are likely to have attended, or cultural skews in the exams themselves.

But according to Garaufis’ ruling, the city also cut a lot of corners in preparing its exams. For instance, as it drew up the 2007 exam, the city’s testmakers asked a panel of firefighters to evaluate how well they thought the questions related to the job. There were many calls for changes. The city ignored them.

Paul Mannix, a deputy chief with 23 years on the fire department, leads a group called Merit Matters that has resisted what it says is a watering down of the firefighter entrance exams that sacrifices competence. He’s worried that the upcoming test, which might be administered by computer, will allow people with inadequate reading comprehension to pass the test. Reading is a key part of the firefighters’ job, he says, from deciphering the printouts that provide emergency assignments to keeping up on tactics and safety bulletins. “You have to read our books and learn our procedures,” he says. “You can’t possibly teach somebody all the things that have to be learned.”

Mannix admits that, as Garaufis ruled, the city made mistakes in crafting the 2007 test but doesn’t think those who passed the test should be penalized for them. Asked whether the alleged lowering of test standards from 1999 onward meant that today there are mentally or physically unqualified people in New York’s firehouses, Mannix replies, “I can’t say that with any certainty. But it is a recipe for disaster.”

Not all firefighters of color agree with the approach taken by the Vulcans. FDNY Hispanic Society head Lt. G. Ricco Diaz has been on the force since 1984 and has heard his share of ethnic slurs. He recalls the time a Latino woman eyed Diaz as she walked past the firehouse. “Ain’t it great to be a Puerto Rican with a job? You get a lot of ass, man,” a fellow firefighter told him. It’s different now. “They can’t say, ‘N—–s want the job’ or ‘S—s want it,’ so they say ‘they.'” But Diaz’s group has eschewed the litigation approach because, he says, claims of discrimination discourage young Latinos from applying to the department.

The presence of minorities in the FDNY is increasing, albeit slowly. The FDNY conducted 5,000 outreach events in 2010 promoting the 2011 test; among those who filled out expression-of-interest forms at those events, 35 percent were black and 28 percent were Latino. The one academy class taken from the 2007 list (before the judge shut that list down) was 35 percent minority, the highest rate in city history. The fact is, Diaz says, firefighting is a father-son job. As more Hispanics and blacks enter the FDNY and rise through the ranks, more young minorities will identify firefighting as a viable career path.

But it will be a slow process in a city that is increasingly majority-minority. Paul Washington, an FDNY captain and past president of the Vulcan Society, said in a 2009 television interview that the fact that his dad was a firefighter was a major help to his own effort to join the department. “There’s no question that’s an advantage, and it’s an advantage that very few blacks and Hispanics enjoy,” he said.

For Diaz, this is as complex as it is personal. A dear friend of his was among the 343 lost on Sept. 11. A Latino, the man had been hired in the years after the Vulcans’ 1973 court victory. Diaz recalls being among the sea of blue uniforms that spilled out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral as his friend’s funeral ended. “I’m leaving, and I still heard a guy say, ‘Yeah, but he was one of those 3-to-1 guys.’ That was devastating to me. Even after 9/11, you still won’t treat him as an equal? I don’t want that for the following generations of firefighters to come.”