FDNY's Black Firefighter Problem

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

Captain Washington, former Vulcan Society president, got into the city’s fire department the way many people do: through his dad.

“My father was either the first or the second black firefighter ever on Staten Island,” he says. “He was the first to come on the job, then my uncle, then an older brother.” With seven firefighters in the family, he says the Washingtons are the “most extensive black family in the FDNY.” This kind of familial success in the department is “pretty unique” for a black family, he says, “but it’s pretty normal for white people.”

Though he knew about how to become a firefighter through his family, he doesn’t think it should be this way. “This job is the city’s best-kept secret,” he says, but “that test is wiping us out.”

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

As an active firefighter, Washington says he has no desire to see unfit people on the job. But he believes that exam 6019 isn’t appropriate. “The test has no bearing on whether or not you can be a firefighter,” he says.

For years, the Vulcans have fought the city over FDNY hiring and have made little headway. We wondered what another black organization in a department with a much better track record thought about that.

“Every public servant in the city owes something to the Vulcans and Paul Washington, especially people of color,” says Marquez Claxton, co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, a group that represents black members of the NYPD.

“I wish I had known about becoming a firefighter!” Claxton says, adding that he’d have given up being a cop in a moment. “It’s the best job in the city! . . . A rookie police officer, man—you’re at your post, riding in that car several hours a day, or walking foot patrol, five days a week. In the fire department, you may have a fire—you may not!

“Yes, they save many lives, and there’s a risk—a reasonable and understood risk,” he says. “But as far as benefits and flexibility are concerned, it is the best civil service job.”

And Claxton says that he, and all blacks serving in the city, owe a debt to the Vulcans for opening the doors to make jobs available in the other uniformed services. (Cargin and Hines, of the class of recruits now in limbo, acknowledge the Vulcan’s historic role, even though they disagree with some Vulcan tactics in the current litigation.)

Now that the 6019 exam has been permanently barred from use, the Vulcans and the Department of Justice are working with the city under a special master to oversee the development of a new test. (Opponents of change grumble that the new test will be dumbed-down; the Vulcans say it will be more relevant.)

According to Washington, the Vulcans feel a certain level of victory. “At least they are devising a new test,” he says, and he gives the city some credit for doing a better job with recruitment. But a test is only part of the problem. As long as applicants are coming in from outside the city, it will keep the hires from reflecting the city’s population.

To address that situation, Washington has lobbied the City Council to create a bill giving anyone who graduates from a city high school five bonus points on the exam.

“This will ensure that our kids, that we educate in our city, are getting our city jobs,” he says. This race-neutral leg up for New York is such a popular idea, Washington says, that 33 of the 50 members of the City Council support it, including three of the five Republicans.

Giving out bonus points is not as ham-fisted as it sounds. Veterans already receive five bonus points, and children of fallen FDNY or NYPD get 10. There are five given to people with residency (which is easy to obtain or even forge), and the Vulcans want to see a more significant boost for high school grads. But nothing is ever easy with the city and the FDNY, and even though Commissioner Cassano and a veto-proof block of the City Council are for it, Speaker Christine Quinn won’t let it come up for a vote, Washington says.

And so one more pathway to a more diverse force—and a race-neutral one—is dead.

With a discarded, in-limbo class that can’t be hired, a rank-and-file unable to reflect the population it serves, and a city and federal government unable to figure out how to move forward, is there any hope that the race tension of the FDNY will abate anytime soon?

In August, David Cargin was sitting in Garaufis’s courtroom with his fellow classmates.

The gallery was packed with people who had aced exam 6019 in 2007. Young and extremely fit, their muscular bodies appearing out of place in their dress clothes, they looked like a college football team told by their coach to dress up and meet the dean.

They had been told that the “disparate impact” of the exam results had resulted in too few minority successes. But the gathered crowd did not look especially homogenous. They looked kind of like New York City: Black, Hispanic, white, and Asian, the 30 or so men and women looked like a potential reflection of the city they wanted to serve.

« Previous Page
Next Page »