FDNY's Black Firefighter Problem

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

If the test itself isn’t racist, is it just bad?

It’s hard to see any racial discrimination in the individual questions from past exams that the Voice was able to obtain. But that doesn’t change the fact that minority groups have fared worse in them.

The court even has a legal term for it: “disparate impact.”

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

And the thing is, it’s not against the law for a hiring test to create disparate impact, as long as that test evaluates the vital skills necessary for job performance. But the FDNY’s critics charge that its exams don’t really determine who will or will not turn out to be a good firefighter.

“The Supreme Court said in 1971 that if you have a test, and you know that one racial or ethnic group is doing significantly worse than another on that exam,” Darius Charney, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, explains, “and you know—and here’s the important part that’s being missed—that the test doesn’t actually test the skills or the abilities that you need to have for that particular job, then that employer can’t use the test.”

It’s a classic criticism of written testing: Is the city really ending up with great potential firefighters, or simply people who are good at written tests?

For four decades, federal courts have asked the city to adapt different ways of recruiting and screening candidates. The FDNY has been asked, for example, to rely partially upon interviews and oral exams instead of strictly upon written tests. It has been asked to consider giving more weight to the physical exam, which is pass-or-fail. It has been asked to make sure written exams test a candidate’s ability to train for a job rather than be immediately ready to start.

The city, for the most part, has resisted all of these changes for the FDNY. And when the federal government has simply ordered the city to change its ways, the city has mostly turned a deaf ear.

In the most recent major development in the decades-long mess, the city’s attempts at changing the test have come off as disingenuous or simply incompetent.

This became clear in the court testimony of Catherine Cline, the woman who was hired by the city to oversee the creation of the 6019 exam. During a withering cross-examination, Cline revealed that she never asked for the reading level of the test to be evaluated, even though that had been a central point of previous litigation. She implied that the passing score was chosen in an arbitrary manner, and she had no data showing that cognitive exams predict the job performance of a firefighter.

The most damning thing, Garaufis ruled, was that Cline “ignored comments from firefighters and fire lieutenants who reviewed the examination before it was administered and overwhelmingly agreed that large portions of the exam should not be used.”

A majority of the randomly selected (and therefore mostly white) FDNY members who reviewed the 6019 exam believed that some questions were confusing or inappropriate for entry-level firefighters.

From his written opinion, it was clear that after Cline’s testimony, Garaufis was hopping mad.

It’s not like Garaufis hasn’t offered Mayor Michael Bloomberg multiple options to deal with the controversy over test 6019. The judge had the city and the plaintiffs meet with a special master, who devised seven different plans for hiring interim firefighters. They ranged from randomly hiring from all exam-takers in proportion to their racial makeup, or randomly hiring only from those who had scored a certain amount, or immediately seating those—like Sabir and Cargin—who had aced the most recent test with a promise to do even better with a racial quota on the subsequent incoming class.

Garaufis selected four of those options (and added one of his own), asking the city to choose from them so at least some new firefighters could be hired. (With no new hires in two years, the city had argued that it was in an emergency hiring situation and badly needed to swell the FDNY’s depleted numbers.)

The city, however, didn’t like any of the five options the judge offered, so it said it would make do with the firefighters it already had.

Garaufis’s reaction to that response bore the signature of someone who feels that he has been strung along and is tired of being had: “Tellingly, for the first time, the City now concedes that its hiring needs ‘are financially driven as opposed to a safety issue.’ This claim is peculiar because the City has always represented that hiring new firefighters resulted in short-term costs and long-term savings. . . . It is unclear why those long-term savings have dissipated in a matter of weeks,” he wrote.

Garaufis seems to feel little sympathy for the city: “To the extent that the City’s claim is accurate, it is a situation entirely of the City’s making. In a desire to preserve short-term savings, the City has not hired firefighters since July 2008. It has also been on notice of possible problems with Exam 6019 since—at the very latest—January 2010 and has in no way adjusted its processing of applicants.”

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