On Friday, five months into his term, Mayor Bill de Blasio finally announced his new pick to lead the New York City Fire Department, appointing Dan Nigro as FDNY Commmissioner.
Nigro is eminently qualified: he’s a 32-year veteran of the department, their former Chief of Operations, and on September 11, led the FDNY through its brutal and heartbreaking search and rescue mission at Ground Zero. (Because of that last qualification, he’s also been mentioned in some particularly convoluted 9/11 conspiracy theories, too dumb to get into here, which he has politely and with a great deal of self control called “without merit.”.)
But Nigro’s appointment was also a bit of a surprise, following reports that de Blasio was looking at a number of women and people of color to fill the position, including retired captain Brenda Berkman, former FDNY attorney Mylan Denerstein, and Rochell “Rocky” Jones, the city’s first female fire captain.
The FDNY, as we told you in a February feature, has just 37 women currently in its ranks, versus some 10,500 men. It’s also deeply, profoundly white, about 90 percent, by most estimates. It’s only very recently that people of color have made up a large percentage of the classes graduating from Fire Academy on Randall’s Island. In December, the most diverse class ever graduated, with four women and 62 percent minorities among the 242 new firefighters.
De Blasio’s pick for commissioner was widely seen as symbolically important, an indicator of whether his administration would try to address those incredibly lopsided numbers, or make the department more welcoming for women, minorities and LGBT people. (According to firefighters we spoke to, there is only one openly transgendered person in the FDNY, and one openly gay man very few openly gay men and women. )
At last week’s press conference announcing Nigro’s appointment, many of the questions dealt with how he plans to diversify the department. The new commissioner vowed to act quickly, saying, “A chief diversity inclusion officer will be brought on board, someone who we trust that can work with the team. We will put together the best team we can and look at things… We will work on this, we will finish this when it’s done – when this department is the way the mayor and I feel it should be, and the people of New York feel it should be.”
The diversity officer position is a legal requirement, mandated as part of a settlement the de Blasio administration agreed to in March. That settlement ended a years-long lawsuit brought by the Vulcan Society, an association of black firefighters, which accused the FDNY of racial bias in its recruiting and testing practices. The city will also pay $98 million in back pay and benefits to minority candidates who said they were prevented from joining the department because of biased testing practices.
“We’re not just going to follow that order, but we’re going to try to set the tone that this fire department is not here to do something because we’re told, but we’re going to do something because it’s right,” Nigro said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
He’ll have his hands full. Some current firefighters — particularly an anti-affirmative action group called Merit Matters — think anything that makes it easier for women and people of color to join the FDNY smacks of favoritism. On FDNY Rant, a popular message board, commenters complain about “PHs” (priority hires, meaning minority candidates) and women ruining the department.
“The future of this job and public safety is at risk,” one anonymous firefighter on the board complained in December. “I wanted to be a lawyer but I couldn’t pass the BAR exam. There were all sorts of law related questions, this is not fair I’m not a lawyer yet…
We lowered the standards for the PH’S so now the women want the same.”
“Wahhh…why aren’t there more women in the NFL? Why aren’t there more short white males in the NBA? This is a job that does NOT need two separate sets of criteria for men and women,” another veteran firefighter wrote on Facebook, around the same time. “The minimum standard is the minimum standard. These female #FDNY “#firefighters” should be ASHAMED!” (He was met with general agreement from other male firefighters; a female EMS worker — a division of the FDNY — who told him his comments weren’t appropriate was quickly shouted down.)
Another firefighter who wrote to the Voice said most women weren’t cut out to be firefighters. ” I can’t explain how important it is that you need to be a ‘bruiser’ type of person to do this job,” he told us. “It is absolutely grunt type of stuff and some of the guys that do this job are amazingly strong which makes them good at what they do .The work is truly based on brute force . This attribute is something most women do not have.”
The notion that women aren’t physically capable of being firefighters persists almost 30 years after females first started serving in the FDNY. While Nigro says he intends to work on hiring and recruitment practices, changing the attitudes of white firefighters might be a little more challenging.
The United Women Firefighters is a fraternal organization for women in the FDNY. Sarinya Srisakul, their current president, seems cautiously optimistic. In a statement Friday afternoon, she told the Voice, “I look forward to working with Commissioner Nigro on the issues affecting women firefighters in the FDNY. Strong measures need to be made to improve the opportunities for women under his leadership.”
Former FDNY captain Brenda Berkman, one of de Blasio’s reported candidates for the job, also told us the mayor and Commissioner Nigro, “need to take strong and immediate measures to end discrimination in the FNDY that has been going on far too long.” She added, “It is no accident that there are fewer women firefighters now than in 1982. It is time for the Commissioner to step up and ensure that the FDNY offers true opportunity to women.”
Update: An FDNY spokeswoman takes issue with some of our numbers: “There are presently 47 uniformed female members in the Fire end of the Department. The total number of members is 10430 and only 85.97% are white.” She also notes that there is a fraternal organization for LGBT fire and EMS members. Other sources in the department say there are now a handful of openly gay male and female firefighters, although they tend to keep a low profile.