FDNY's Black Firefighter Problem

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

With this ruling, Sabir and Cargin’s class—which has been waiting since January of 2008 to be hired—has effectively been shut out. If they ever want to be firefighters, they’ll have to take the next test from scratch, whenever it is done and administered, and hope they can score in the top handful again.

But there’s another wrinkle. Sabir and Cargin, who aced the last test, have been waiting so long that they are now considered too old to take a new entrance exam. They can’t even sit for a do-over exam unless the rules are changed.

Dion Hines knows that Judge Garaufis is trying to help black FDNY applicants like him, but he thinks the judge is going about it all wrong.

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

“When you think about the city, it’s like a child. If you want a child to do something, you have to force it. You don’t give a child options—and he gave the city options! Frankly, I think the judge’s ruling sucked. You’ve spent so much time parading [around] that the city is discriminating, then you give them a choice about how they were going to act? What was the point of stopping the class from being hired, if you weren’t going to force anything to be done to rectify the situation?”

Hines and his classmates seem to be nearly as frustrated with another group that’s supposed to be on their side: the Vulcans.

Hines and Cargin were in a small group of African-American members from their class to meet with the organization of black firefighters. Hines says that the club’s president, John Coombs, “literally called us ‘casualties of war.’ That created a lot of tension, because I knew they were willing to sacrifice us.”

(The meeting had been called before Garaufis made his final ruling on what to do with interim hiring. Hines and Cargin wanted the Vulcans to ask the judge to let the class in limbo become firefighters as long as other measures were tried in the future, which did become one of the options Garaufis offered the city.)

“Our goal was to try to find some common ground,” Cargin says. “Even though the numbers weren’t where they wanted them to be, [our class] was still a big improvement. This change won’t happen in one class or on one test, but as long as the numbers continued to rise and progress was being made, how could it be a failure? And I felt like they just said, ‘This isn’t good enough.’ ”

Specifically, Cargin was frustrated that the Vulcans weren’t interested in the age issue, which will keep him from taking any future exam: “The president said, ‘Oh, no, that number is untouchable. We can’t touch that.’ ”

Cargin was incensed. He, Hines, and a few others had secured a meeting with FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, who they say told them the FDNY would look into changing the age limit in their cases. “The fact that we can go to the commissioner and ask him what he’ll do about the age limit, and he’s for it, but I ask the Vulcan president, and he says straight-up ‘No,’ I have to think, who is he trying to help? I’m a black candidate and, if anything, I’m a potential member!”

Hines and Cargin are both good friends with Seankelly McCauley, a white 23-year-old from Staten Island who is from a firefighting family and scored over 100 on his exam. McCauley, like his African-American brethren, says, “We’re all in this boat together.

“Every one of us is in a terrible situation,” he says. “And you know what? I have met really great men and women through all of this. If I have to wait a little longer to get on the job, I’ve made great friends through this. We’ve all been screwed, but the enthusiasm and the greatness of people willing to be firefighters has been tested. And if you’re willing to go through this, and still want the job, it’s going to develop a good firefighter—a good person, really.”

Fearing their chances of becoming members of the FDNY are slim, Cargin and McCauley have both started applying for firefighting jobs around the country. But Hines, who is currently working as a personal trainer, isn’t giving up: “This is what I’m going to do. People tell me to try something else, but I have my mind set. I got 100 percent on the last test. Whatever test they come up with next, I can do it again.”

FDNY Captain Paul Washington meets the Voice at Vulcan Hall, a nondescript multi-family house on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights that doesn’t look much like a firefighter hangout. Inside, the long wooden bar is reminiscent of a suburban rec-room in someone’s basement. When the Voice visited, there was the intermittent ping of a smoke detector, whose battery was in need of changing.

Black firefighters—there are about 300 of them out of the city’s force of 9,000—fill the place two Mondays a month.

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