Monday, December 26, 2005

Firing Up the Diversity Battle

In yesterday's NY Daily News the paper reported on the ongoing fight over the paucity of black firefighters in the FDNY. This is a battle that has been waged for over twenty years and, in spite of the efforts of advocates, the Department remains only about 3% Black. What has changed in the current episode of a decades long struggle is the probe launched into the racial disparities by the Department of Justice.

Everyone on both sides of the fight – the FDNY and the Vulcan Society alike – agree that this under-representation needs to be remedied. As usual, however, disagreements abound over the right approach to altering the glaring imbalance. The Vulcans appear to sanction some kind of quota system since they don't feel that the Department's written test is a fair measure of an applicant's ability to fight fires. As the Society's lawyer remarks, "The department has never proven a relationship between the skills measured by the written test and the skills required to be a good firefighter."

Surely, this is something that can be reliably tested and defended by the Department. More problematic is the assertion of the test's detractors that, "the test is inherently biased, because black applicants come from poor performing city schools." Even if true this fact has absolutely nothing to do with whether the test is or is not unfair.

All this does not mean that the FDNY has done all that it can to diversify the department. Clearly it has fallen short. Recruitment and test preparation is the key, along with the money needed to do this job properly. The last thing that should be done, however, is to water down the measures (written or physical) used to select this elite force. This would be a recipe for disaster.