Women Firefighters Say Legislation Alone Will Not Improve FDNY Diversity
Sarinya Srisakul, head of the FDNY's United Women Firefighters
Felipe Santiago for the Village Voice
The president of the New York Fire Department’s women’s coalition says recent legislation enacted by Mayor Bill de Blasio to improve the FDNY's hiring practices is a victory for her group, which pushed hard for the bill. But she concedes that it will take more than legislation to make a dent in the department's diversity problem.
The bill, which de Blasio signed on June 2, will require the FDNY to report data tracking the ethnic and gender makeup of its applicants at each stage of the application process every year, starting from 2012 — its most recent application year.
Firefighter Sarinya Srisakul is the president of United Women Firefighters, the organization within the fire department that has been requesting such diversity information from FDNY for years.
“There really shouldn’t have been a need for the bill, but the fire department didn’t want to give that information up,” Srisakul tells the Voice. “There needs to be transparency, because it’s a government agency.” Srisakul, who took the FDNY written exam in 2002 and became a firefighter in 2005, believes the bill alone will not hasten a more diverse firefighting force or increase the ranks of female firefighters.
“I don’t think any of this will change because of the bill,” she says. “I think it’s changing because we’ve been doing work on it for the past few years. The bill is just one piece of it.”
As it stands now, the department has 10,628 firefighters, only 46 of whom are women, according to FDNY numbers. But in addition to this gender disparity, the FDNY is also overwhelmingly white. In February, NBC News reported that, according to department data, 933 firefighters as of November 2014 identified as Hispanic, 504 as black, and 110 as Asian. That means minorities represent under 15 percent of FDNY firefighters, and that a mere 4.8 percent are black.
In an email, FDNY press officer Elisheva Zakheim says those numbers have since increased. As of February 2015, she said, the firefighting force is now “16 percent minorities and people of color.” She declined to provide an exact number for each ethnic group, citing the May 2015 graduation.
The fire department has been plagued by controversy surrounding the ethnic and gender makeup of its firefighters for decades. It wasn’t until 1977 that the first woman, Brenda Berkman, joined its ranks — the result of lawsuits and court orders. In 2007, the U.S. Justice Department sued the FDNY, alleging a pattern of intentional discrimination against black and Hispanic applicants due to the FDNY’s written exams, which DOJ contended failed to test for relevant job skills. At the time, about 3.4 percent of firefighters were black, out of a force of nearly 9,000.
In March 2014, after years of legal wrangling, judgments, and counter-judgments, the de Blasio administration settled the DOJ lawsuit to the tune of $100 million. Since then, because of the suit, the department has appointed its first-ever diversity officer, Pam Lassiter, who will oversee diversity recruiting and equal-employment compliance.
Though the numbers are still low, the FDNY has made a concerted effort to include more diverse candidates. The department reported that of its 303 graduating officers in May 2015, 16 percent identified as black, 23 percent as Hispanic, and 3 percent as Asian. During the December 2014 New York City Council hearing on the bill, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said there are more than 60 qualified female applicants on the civil service list waiting to be called up to the next step. He added that over 47 percent of applicants overall identify as nonwhite.
In 2012, more than 42,000 people sat for the department's written exam, according to the FDNY. Of those, 1,952 were women — more than the number of women who took the previous three tests combined. Data from the Department of Citywide Administrative Services shows that 8,186 applicants identified as black, 9,582 as Hispanic, and 1,314 as Asian — about 45.7 percent of the total number of applicants who took the test. Moreover, 70 percent of women who took the test were women of color, 43 percent of whom were black.
“The department is working hard to improve diversity in the firefighter ranks — a shared goal with the City Council,” Zakheim says. She adds that the FDNY “is happy to provide detailed information about the application process.”
In signing the bill, which had more than 40 co-sponsors in the City Council, de Blasio expressed hope that the law will serve to diversify the department. “This bill will deepen our understanding of the FDNY’s hiring process, and help New York’s bravest strengthen its workforce while increasing transparency and diversity,“ he said last week.
Councilmembers Elizabeth Crowley and Helen Rosenthal, who sponsored the legislation, echoed the mayor.
“This bill will bring a necessary level of transparency and accountability to the FDNY,” Crowley said. “It is the next step in breaking down barriers deterring well-qualified women and minorities from becoming New York City firefighters.”
“The numbers just don’t add up,” said Rosenthal. “Thirteen percent of San Francisco’s firefighters are women, roughly fifteen percent of the active-duty U.S. military are women, seventeen percent of New York police officers are women — and less than half of a percent of New York firefighters are women."
She added: “I am eager to learn what is so unique about being a firefighter in NYC that it excludes women. The data we will receive from this bill will shed light on how many women apply to be firefighters and where they drop off along the long application process.”
It can take as little as two years, or drag on to four, from application to graduation from the fire academy. The first step is to take the written exam. The score from that is then factored into a point system that takes into account a number of other variables, including residency and military or familial service.
Once they are called, applicants have another set of hurdles to clear, including a battery of physical, medical, and psychological tests. And at each of these steps, says Srisakul, women drop off.
“A comprehensive study needs to be done of why we have such huge drop-off rates compared to men,” she says. “We know there are reasons. Some women do say that they are no longer interested, but that could mean many things. That could mean that when they had to take the written test, they were the only woman and they felt uncomfortable. They didn’t realize how bad the FDNY is.
“Or, as...happened to me, I decided to apply and I got ridiculed for it. [Female applicants] have pressure from their families and there’s a lack of support. And then there are people who move for regular reasons, they got better jobs, they got promotions.”
Srisakul also points out that because the hiring process can last for so long, women could decide to start families in the meantime and then be unable to get ready in time to take the physical component of the test. She credits the UWF for helping numerous women prepare for the test and provide the support women firefighters need from the recruiting process onward.
She applauds the current administration for doing more to diversify the FDNY’s ranks, saying de Blasio has been more amenable to working with the women’s organization.
“This is a step in the right direction,” she said, but noted that change within the department has traditionally come through litigation: “It doesn’t happen organically.”
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