FDNY's Black Firefighter Problem

Meet the black candidates who aced the FDNY's supposedly racist entrance exam—and still can't become firefighters

FDNY's Black Firefighter Problem
Photograph by Samuel Zide. Model: Carl Gillard. Props: Provided by Uncle Sam's and Eclectic Encore. Make-Up: Jessica Padilla.

How would you perform in a test of logic and reading comprehension, even if the terms used in the questions made no sense to you?

Here’s what we mean: try to come up with the answer to the following strange question:

Q: When operating in an exocraft which uses a multidefraction system, it is necessary for an exoditer to maintain adequate defraction at the combinator coupler of the exoditing ray. The correct defraction is calculated by adding 5 picograms of inert matter for each micrometer of additional aperture that is being used, to a constant starting base of 50 picograms.

Top test-takers who are still washed out (from left): Nafis Sabir, David Cargin, Seankelly McCauley, Dion Hines
Ashlei Quinones
Top test-takers who are still washed out (from left): Nafis Sabir, David Cargin, Seankelly McCauley, Dion Hines
Ashlei Quinones

An exoditing team is operating with a multidefraction system and is in the process of using 4 additional micrometers of aperture. The correct defraction that needs to be applied in this situation is: A) 50 picograms, B) 60 picograms, C) 70 picograms, D) 80 picograms.

Did you figure out the answer? It might seem a little confusing at first, but the answer should become plain. It’s not really difficult to figure out that “70 picograms” is the correct response, even if you don’t have the slightest idea what “exoditing” or a “multidefraction system” is (terms that we invented). Getting the right answer is simply a matter of following the logic of the question and doing some simple math.

If there really were “exoditers” who practiced “defraction,” you could argue that they would have an advantage in answering this question. But even without that knowledge, it’s easy to get the correct answer—and there is only one correct response.

Now, why bother you with this made-up example? Because very similar test questions are at the center of one of the longest and most contentious court fights in New York City’s history.

We’ll put back the original words from the actual question, the one we used to create that sample above, and it should immediately become clear what we’re talking about:

Q: When operating in a building which uses a standpipe system, it is necessary for a firefighter to maintain adequate pressure at the nozzle of the firefighting stream. The correct nozzle pressure is calculated by adding an additional 5 psi (pound per square inch) for each length of hose that is being used, to a constant starting base of 50 psi.

A firefighting team is operating in a building with a standpipe system and is in the process of using 4 lengths of hose. The correct nozzle pressure that needs to be applied in this situation is: A) 50 psi, B) 60 psi, C) 70 psi, D) 80 psi.

Yes, that’s an actual question from an entrance examination used to screen candidates for the city’s fire department. And, as in our previous sample, the answer should be easy for you discover: 70 psi.

New York City’s firefighting exams have historically been full of these kinds of questions. On the surface, they seem to require an awful lot of familiarity with firefighting equipment and procedural jargon. But when you look closer, you see that in just about every case, the answer can be determined with straightforward logic. In this example, you really don’t need to know what a “standpipe system” is or how pressure is added at the nozzle of a fire hose. You just need to add 5 psi for every length of hose on top of the base pressure of 50. In other words, this is a simple question requiring only basic math. (See also, "The 10 Most Idiotic Questions from FDNY Entrance Exams.")

It may surprise you to learn, then, that this question (and many others like it) have been found by the federal court system to be part of a virulently racist entrance process that has been designed to keep blacks and other minority New Yorkers from becoming firefighters.

The question above was taken from a test that was discarded as too biased against non-whites. The most recent test, we have every reason to believe, is very much like it. (The test is under court seal so we are not allowed to see it.) And even though the most recent use of the entrance exam resulted in a higher number of non-white successes than in recent FDNY history, a federal judge declared the test just as biased as its predecessors and initially refused to allow the recruits who passed it—white, black, Latino, and otherwise—to become firefighters. (By the time he gave the city a way they could hire the test-passers with conditions, the city had chosen not to.)

There’s no question that there is something very wrong with how the FDNY adds new employees. For nearly 40 years, various courts have issued injunctions to correct the miserable record of non-white hiring. New York’s fire department may, in fact, be the whitest large institution run by a major city in the United States. Your chance of becoming a firefighter in New York if you aren’t white, Irish, or Italian, and come from a family of firefighters has traditionally been very slim.

But is the entrance exam really to blame? And can it be called racist simply because blacks and Latinos don’t score as well as whites, even when the questions have no discernible racial component to them at all? And why is it taking decades for the city and the courts to come up with some way of recruiting new firefighters that reflects the kind of success of the NYPD and other city departments?

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