Tuesday is graduation day at the New York City Fire Academy, and this particular ceremony also doubles as a bit of a landmark. The graduation takes place at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn; Mayor Bill de Blasio is scheduled to address the new graduates at 11 a.m., along with outgoing Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano and Department Chief Edward Kilduff. The mayor will be speaking to a graduating class of 286 people, about 45 percent of whom identify as black, Latino or Asian. And four of them are women, bringing the total number of female firefighters in the FDNY to 41. There haven’t been that many women in the department since 1982, the first year the FDNY was required to allow female firefighters to serve following a lengthy court battle.
There are about 10,500 active-duty firefighters in the FDNY, meaning that even with the new graduates, women make up less than one half of one percent of their ranks. For the United Women Firefighters, today’s graduation represents real, if frustratingly slow, progress.
The UWF is a fraternal organization that represents female firefighters in the FDNY. In a statement, they expressed both optimism about their growing numbers and continuing frustration at the snail-like speed at which women are hired in the department:
“In the past 32 years, the FDNY has been unable to hire many women including a
period of ten years where no women were hired,” the UWF’s statement reads, in part. “We are now seeing the FDNY play catch-up to these low numbers.”
They add that while the new graduates will increase the FDNY’s female membership to a whopping almost 0.4 percent, it still doesn’t change the fact that the department has one of the worst gender disparities of any fire service in the country. They’re hoping new commissioner Daniel Nigro, who starts June 7, will work even harder to improve those numbers.
“A record-breaking 4,261 women filed for the last firefighter exam — more
women than the last three exams combined,” they write. “The current candidate list could result in greatly improving diversity within the FDNY while increasing opportunities for qualified young women to serve their communities as firefighters. It is up to new commissioner Daniel Nigro to end age old barriers for women who want to become FDNY firefighters.”
The UWF and other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have argued that the gender gap is deliberate, the result of testing practices that discriminate against women and an unwelcoming environment at the Fire Academy that makes it exceedingly difficult for women to thrive. Six women entered this current graduating class, but two didn’t make it to graduation day.
The FDNY brass disagrees with the notion that the department has a woman problem, pointing out that they’ve put millions into recruiting women and people of color, including opening a special Office of Recruitment and Diversity.
They’ve also said previously that the problem isn’t quite as bad as the UWF makes it out to be. The FDNY press office told the Voice in May that there are 47 women serving in the FDNY. They requested a correction to an article in which we’d written that there were 37 women currently serving.
The UWF was surprised to learn there were ten more female firefighters. As it turns out, there aren’t.
A discussion between the UWF and the FDNY public relations team revealed that the FDNY was including uniformed medical staff in their overall numbers of women, instead of just counting firefighters and fire officers.
In an email to the Voice yesterday, FDNY spokesperson Elisheva Zakheim defended that 47 number as being “technically correct,” but said the FDNY won’t count medical staff in their official numbers anymore. She wrote: “The 47 number while being technically correct in terms of payroll for uniformed members of the Fire service – the 41 is a reflection those who rose through the rank of Firefighter. Going forward, the numbers will reflect that definition.”
“I’m extremely happy to see us reach this historic number,” UWF president Sarinya Srisakul tell us. “It’s sad that it took the department 32 years, but we — the UWF — are working hard to change our numbers. Three out of the four graduates trained with us, and I’ve watched one of them throughout her entire process of becoming a firefighter. Tw of the women are coming to my area, and one to my battalion. The changes are real, and are affecting me and my personal life in a very positive way. I’m just really happy and proud of these women. The hard work that me and my organization put forth is all made worthwhile today.”