Minority-Dominated Class Graduates from New York Fire Academy

Michael Schwirtz, New York Times, December 5, 2013

Amid wailing bagpipes and roaring applause, the newest batch of New York City firefighters graduated from the fire academy on Thursday, joining a 148-year-old institution that is steeped in tradition, but also on the cusp of significant change.

The graduation was the latest stage in a court-ordered experiment to alter the face of the predominantly white Fire Department. Minorities make up more than 60 percent of the class, making it the most diverse in department history.

The new class is “furthering the department’s longstanding goal of better representing the city we serve,” Salvatore J. Cassano, the fire commissioner, said at the ceremony, which was held in the packed hall of the Christian Cultural Center in Canarsie, Brooklyn.

“I believe in diversity,” he said. “I believe it will make our work force stronger.”

The effort to diversify has met with skepticism and some hostility in some of the city’s 200 or so firehouses. Some firefighters have accused the department of creating a quota system that has promoted diversity over competence.

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In his graduation remarks, Mr. Cassano sought to allay any concerns about the competence of the new class.

He said the city had “fought extremely hard to improve the diversity and inclusiveness in this department, while never wavering from the extremely high standards this job demands.”

The graduation, which was attended by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and top Fire Department officials, represents the culmination of years of legal wrangling over a persistent legacy of racial discrimination at the department. In 2007, the Justice Department sued the Fire Department after the Vulcan Society, a black firefighters group, complained that the entrance exams used by the department were biased against minority applicants.

A judge agreed, and ordered the department to create a new exam and reform its hiring practices. The judge, Nicholas G. Garaufis of Federal District Court in Brooklyn, also ordered the department to give another chance to some minority applicants, some of whom failed exams given in 1999 or 2002.

There are 76 of these recruits, known as priority hires, in the current class. Many of them are older, and because of the court order they will receive higher pay than even some more senior firefighters.

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Of the 242 who did graduate, 24 percent are black and 36 percent are Hispanic. {snip}

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