FDNY's Black Firefighter Problem

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

By Steven Thrasher

published: December 15, 2010

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.

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?

The answer to that question is so frustrating and strange, you may need to smoke a few picograms of something while operating an exocraft to grasp it all.

Nafis Sabir is an African-American who wants to be a New York City firefighter. When he sat for the city’s most recent exam in January 2007, known as test “6019,” he scored in the top handful out of nearly 22,000 candidates.

“I was 29 at the time,” the former Marine says, “and the test wasn’t that hard. You study for it, and it takes some discipline. But I already had a lot of life experience to do that. Maybe some younger guys don’t.”

Sabir says the exam answers were often comically obvious. “They might ask, ‘Someone comes in the firehouse and looks at you with a crazy look. You can speak to him about it, talk to a supervisor, or punch him in the face. Which one should you not do?’ ” He laughs joylessly. If the test was easy, subsequent events have been difficult.

Although Sabir’s results should have been good enough to get him in, for the past three years, he and hundreds of others have been stuck in a strange kind of limbo. Initially, their start date at the Fire Academy was delayed by budget shortfalls. Then, he and his classmates learned that the test they aced was found to be racist by the federal court, and they wouldn’t be allowed to take positions in the department until a better test could be devised, or the city could come up with some other way to hire new firefighters.

In other words, Sabir, a black man, can’t get a job because he passed a test the court believes was intended to make him fail because of his race.

“First, they said they couldn’t hire us because of money. Then they said they couldn’t because minorities didn’t score well. I don’t get it,” says David Cargin, another African-American man in the same position.

Cargin had done well on the test in part, he says, because he, like others, had taken advantage of the preparation that was offered to applicants. “The city offered free classes on how to study for the test,” he says. He alternated between the classes and the gym—where the city provided free training for a physical test—before taking the written exam.

Even though he doesn’t come from a firefighting family, Cargin, 29, says he didn’t consider that a problem. “Does having a parent on the job [as a firefighter] give you an advantage? Yeah. Is it an unreasonable advantage? No,” he says.

Thirty-two-year-old Dion Hines is another black member of the class who tested high but is going nowhere. He takes issue with the court’s conclusion that the entrance exam is unfair to African-Americans or anyone else. “They blatantly say that the test is the problem. It’s not rocket science. It doesn’t require a higher degree of education,” he says. “There are hypothetical situations, and they give you information, and you have to regurgitate that information. You don’t need to already be a firefighter to understand it.”

But the federal courts have repeatedly blamed entrance examinations as part of the FDNY’s inability to hire more minorities. In 1971, a group of police officers successfully sued the city over discriminatory hiring (Guardians Association of New York City v. the Civil Service Commission) under the federal Civil Rights Act. Two years later, a group of black firefighters, the New York Vulcan Society, was able to win a similar case, which forced the city to adopt hiring quotas. Within a couple of years, however, the city abandoned that approach before any progress could be made.

As a result of the city’s inaction, the whiteness of the FDNY is blatant and embarrassing. (How bad is it? The most recent lawsuit by the federal government was initiated by President George W. Bush’s Justice Department.)

In 1971, blacks constituted 32 percent of the city’s population, but only 5 percent of the fire department. Almost four decades later, only 3.4 percent of the FDNY is black, and less than 7 percent is Latino. In a city with only a 35 percent white population, the FDNY is about 90 percent white. (Women are also woefully underrepresented in the FDNY, but that’s allowable under federal law because of the physical requirements involved in firefighting, which proportionally fewer women can meet.)

Other city departments don’t have such stark numbers. The NYPD, for example, is 16.6 percent black and 18 percent Latino. Those levels are each lower than the actual population, but the practices used to reach them are within federal guidelines.

New York’s fire department is also whiter than those in other cities. Of the fire departments in eight of the nation’s largest cities, New York’s is dead last in diversity.

The FDNY perennially can’t seem to lift its minority hiring numbers at all. “This pattern of underrepresentation has remained essentially unchanged since at least the 1960s,” U.S. Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis recently wrote in one of many rulings against the city, later adding, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

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.”

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.”

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.

“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.

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.”

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.

“I’ll be in either way,” Cargin says that he had thought, figuring that whether the city took the highest scorers or by race in a quota, he’d get in. But the city refused to do either.

Asked if he felt any tension with his white classmates, he said, “Not at all. We’re all in this together. To be honest, I feel more tension with the Vulcans.”

The Vulcans, however, support an option that would have allowed Cargin and all of his classmates to be hired. Despite his belief that 6019 was a bad exam, Judge Garaufis did create a pathway for those who had aced it.

Ultimately, it was the city’s decision not to hire them.

sthrasher@villagevoice.com