Deep in a Harlem housing complex’s basement last Wednesday, hundreds of physically fit, hopeful young men (and a handful of women) sat in chairs on the floor of a basketball court with anticipation. Even after all the seats were filled, a table of black members of the New York City Fire Department continued to check people in until it was standing room only.
The gathered were overwhelming black, but there were about 50 white candidates, with a smattering of Hispanic and Asian faces. They had come to a tutoring session for the FDNY’s latest written exam, which will be given for the first time by computer over several weeks starting March 15.
The results of the last firefighter written exam, given in 2007, were tossed out after Mayor Bloomberg refused to follow a federal judge’s guidelines in applying affirmative action. The federal government has sued the city for four decades for not complying with the Civil Rights Act’s Title VII provision “to assure equality of employment opportunities and to eliminate those discriminatory practices and devices which have fostered racially stratified job environments to the disadvantage of minority citizens.”
More than 90 percent of New York firefighters are white males. In the past decade, it was George W. Bush’s Department of Justice that initiated the latest phase of the federal lawsuit demanding that the city address this.
Unlike the last test, which was created by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (and, critics charged, written to benefit people from firefighting families), this new exam was made by an independent test maker in consultation with the city, the feds, and the Vulcan Society—the organization of black firefighters that is running sessions to help black candidates prepare.
“Some of you didn’t register” for the class, FDNY captain Paul Washington, the public face of the Vulcans, said as he started Wednesday night’s session.
Captain Washington made it clear that, though everyone who was there would be accommodated, he wasn’t happy about it. They had enough handouts, he said, but “we might not always have enough resources, and we’re going to make sure we use the resources we have to make sure the people we think should be on the job” get hired.
One white guy flinched. Another snickered. Everyone else stared blankly.
The Vulcans’ goal to get more black firefighters on the FDNY—a job Washington calls “a path to the middle class,” which will make you “set for life”—is a daunting one.
The Vulcans claim that nearly 60,000 people signed up to take the exam, almost three times as many as the record-setting 22,000 who signed up last time. About 20 percent of those who signed up were black.
The Vulcans say that 40,000 to 45,000 will actually show up to take the test. That means they have to make sure every black person they recruited actually takes the exam.
Of the approximately 9,000 current FDNY firefighters, only about 300 are black. The city might only hire about 300 firefighters in total for the next academy class, and there were probably more than 300 hopeful black New Yorkers on Wednesday night alone, with hundreds showing up at each of the almost 20 Vulcan sessions across the city.
The likelihood of any individual getting hired—like a 20-year-old black Air Force reservist who spoke to the Voice—is slim indeed.
To give them the best shot, for hours, Captain Washington walked through the types of questions that will be on the exam, including a Myers-Briggs-style personality-test portion, a video memory-retention portion (with one sample video on zombies and the other on astronomy), and a traditional math- and reading-comprehension segment.
In some ways, the job of firefighter is more sought after now than when the federal government first sued in the early ’70s. Firefighters can’t be outsourced, and the benefits and pay are far more generous than at working-class jobs in the private sector, which have steadily disappeared during the past four decades.
The odds of getting hired from this test are less than one in a hundred, even for the most dedicated candidate. Still, some are leaving nothing to chance.
“The city is also offering a class,” one white attendee who is already employed as an FDNY EMT told the Voice. “But I figured I’d take this one, too. Captain Washington is very well-known, and he said this would be the best class, so I signed up.”