There is still, even after all the years that have lapsed since we presents the UFA, an ongoing controversy over the test administered to determine who can become a fire fighter. As the NY Daily News reports: "A Brooklyn judge on Wednesday blocked the city's plan to hire 300 firefighters - saying the FDNY's latest written exam still discriminates against minority-group applicants. Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled that test No. 6019 is not a true measure of the abilities required for entry-level firefighters. He had previously ruled - in response to a civil lawsuit filed by the Justice Department - that two other written exams also illegally discriminated against black and Hispanic firefighter candidates."
This has always been a sticky question, and under the Dinkins administration, there were efforts to slow time the test, and/or use a lottery system that would select candidates at random from anywhere above a certain passing cut off line-all of the methods devised, however, would have diluted the merit based criteria of selection, and we're eventually thwarted. But that hasn't stopped the push for re-jiggering the testing methodology because the number of minority applicants who have been able to score high enough to become firefighters remains small.
As the News points out, that effort continues to this day: "Richard Levy, a lawyer for the Vulcan Society of black firefighters, estimated it will take six months to a year to construct a new exam that passes muster with the feds and the judge. An interim remedy would be hiring firefighters from the current exam, but not strictly by grades. "I'm sure there are ways they can hire from the applicant pool that doesn't discriminate against minorities," Levy said."
But if you select in any way other than in the test result order, you will inevitably be passing over higher scorers-and be subject to the kind of law suit that roiled the city of New Haven. The problem here is that the fact that minorities are scoring lower than their white counterparts is being used as incontrovertible evidence of discrimination-and lawyer Levy's suggestion does smack of a quota-based method.
Te other problem is that the fire service is a life and death profession-and the skill, training, and physical abilities of the admitted firefighters is a requisite for the FDNY's continued success. Any dilution of the talent pool could lead to results that will compromise public safety-and the safety of the firefighters themselves who rely on the skill of their comrades when engulfed by flames.
So, what to do? If you listen to the CBS News, the answer seems to lie in some kind of quota system because the sheer existence of a mostly white force is, for these arm chair quarterbacks, proof enough: "Axelrod described how "Eight years ago, the fire department was 92 percent white and only 2.8 percent black, in a city that was 24 percent black. A disparity that remains largely unchanged." A sound bite was featured from Columbia Law School Professor Suzanne Goldberg, who like Couric, noted the department's heroism, but went on to describe the lack of diversity as a "singular embarrassment."
Now in other merit based hiring-like, let's say, the New York Knickerbockers, no one feels that it is embarrassing that the squad is almost all black. And everyone agrees that the FDNY is the finest fire fighting force around. But would changing the test compromise this reality in the name of diversity? And imagine for a minute what happens to you or a loved one, if you have a less skillful, but perhaps more diverse force, when you are holding onto a window ledge and flames are licking at your behind? Yes, it is often a life or death situation-and the best firefighters always want to be in those high fire-mostly minority-neighborhoods where their heroism is always nondiscriminatory.
And, of course, when you look at how other cities have diversified their firefighters, the answer has always been the use of quotas: "Acknowledging opposition to the judge's ruling, Axelrod mentioned: "FDNY Deputy Chief Paul Mannix doesn't think New York needs to follow their example." In an exchange with Mannix, Axelrod pressed: "Look at Los Angeles. Look at Philadelphia. Look at Boston." Mannix replied: "Quotas. Quotas. Quotas." Axelrod insisted: "Whatever your method, they corrected racial imbalance." Mannix responded: "By using quotas, and we are against quotas." Axelrod continued: "Mannix believes the current FDNY test focuses too much on producing a racially diverse department and not enough on identifying the strongest candidates regardless of race." Mannix explained: "You're asking me to make my job more dangerous to – to satisfy a social engineering experiment."
But the federal judge has a better understanding of the requirements of the job. As the NY Post reports: ""The city has not shown that the current examination identifies candidates who will be successful firefighters," Judge Nicholas Garaufis wrote in a blistering order restraining the city from taking "any further steps to initiate or finalize a fire academy class." The test questions that make up the New York Fire Department test "do not measure the abilities required for the job of entry-level firefighter," he said..."
In the judge's eyes, it is the result that counts: "What the examination does do is screen and rank applicants in a manner that disproportionately excludes black and Hispanic applicants." And if some folks get hurt in the process, well, justice is not always blind-even if it is colored. As the NY Daily News reports today, that's what has happened to two deserving vets who are now denied admittance to the FDNY because of the judge's ruling: "Veterans who dreamed of joining the FDNY vented frustration yesterday with a judge's decision to cancel a class of firefighters because he said the test they took was biased. "The people who are supposed to be getting helped [by this ruling] could be the one getting hurt," said Nafis Sabir, a 33-year-old African-American man who spent eight years in the Marine Reserves. "I feel pretty frustrated," said Sabir, one of 50 military veterans among the 312 candidates set to enter the department. "I didn't see where the racial bias [was] coming from."
In our view, this will keep up until the desired diversity is finally achieved-and the quality of the force be damned. Judge Garaufis should spend a week in the South Bronx in firefighting gear going into burning buildings before he issues rulings from a safe courtroom pedestal.