Aiming to diversify, FDNY administers new entrance exam

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Decades of discrimination and litigation regarding the FDNY’s hiring practices will be tested this week when the department administers their new entrance exam.

The road to the new exam has been long and bitter, starting with a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice in 2007 that alleged the entrance exam unintentionally discriminated against blacks and other minorities.

Currently, the department is 89 percent Caucasian, 6 percent Hispanic and just 3 percent black, according to the FDNY.

“The reasons behind these numbers can be nothing but a discriminatory or bias attitude,” said Kenneth Cohen, Director of the NAACP metropolitan council. “The numbers are so absurd in this day in time.”

In 2009, Brooklyn Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled that the test was indeed discriminatory because white applicants consistently scored higher. That same judge later ordered the FDNY to develop a new exam with the help of an outside, equal opportunity consultant.

So far, 61,439 people have registered to take the new exam this Thursday, triple the average of years past and the highest amount of applicants in the exam’s history, according to the FDNY.

Cohen is hoping that the new exam will break down the barriers. “I want to see a fair balance,” Cohen said.

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The city has fought the court’s decision every bit of the way, even trying to have Garaufis removed from the case.

That fight has left some to question whether the city wants to diversify the FDNY.

“It doesn’t give you the impression that they’re willing to correct the exams,” said Michael Marshall, vice president of the Vulcan Society, an organization that advocates for black firefighters.

The FDNY responded to Marshall’s comment by pointing out that in the last decade, the FDNY has tripled its rate of minority hires from the previous ten year span.

“The most recent class of Probationary Firefighters in December of 2008 was the most diverse in the Department’s history, with 35 percent of its members coming from a minority background,” FDNY spokesman Frank Dwyer said.

A black firefighter weighs in

Canarsie native Philip Sylvester, 27, is the only black firefighter in his Flatbush engine. Sylvester said that when he applied, he wasn’t aware of the lack of diversity.

“Often times I’m one of the only black people on duty,” he said. “Of course you want to see someone who looks like you … from your same background.”

He said that he’s never experienced any racism, but people outside the department are often “shocked” that he’s a firefighter.

What’s fair?

Some people disagree whether or not race was ever a factor in the entrance
exam.

FDNY Deputy Chief Paul Mannix, 49, of Long Island insists that the test was
fair to begin with.

“The city and the FDNY has nothing to apologize about,” said Mannix.
“Individuals who prepare will do well on this test.”

Mannix leads the group “Merit Matters” that opposes minorities receiving
special treatment in the FDNY’s recruitment process.

The FDNY’s black and Hispanic targeted recruitment practices are unfair, Mannix says, and Vulcan Society leads those efforts.

“They’re not seeking equal treatment, they’re seeking preferential treatment,” Mannix said.


Judge: city must pony up cash over discrimination

Last week, a federal judge ruled that the city could be on the hook for up
to $128 million in damages because of the FDNY’s discriminatory exams.

Brooklyn Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis came up with the figure by
determining that if the 1999 and 2002 hiring tests had been fair, nearly 300
more blacks and Hispanics would have become firefighters.

Applicants that passed the test but were not hired and firefighters that
were eventually hired can file for lost wages.

The city plans to appeal the decision.

“When all the proceedings have been completed, the damages, if any, that the
city will have to pay will be far less than $128 million,” City Corporation
Counsel Michael Cardozo said in a statement.

How did the test change?

The major difference between past FDNY entrance exams and Thursday’s test is reading comprehension, Vulcan Society vice president Michael Marshall said.

Before, reading comprehension was a major part of the test and statistically, minorities did poorer than whites, Marshall said.

“This is a physical job, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do this,” said Marshall.
The Vulcan Society pushed for a more basic, general exam to even the playing field, said Marshall.

The following are sample questions the city posted for Thursday’s exam. According to the samples, there is a video lesson and then test takers are asked to answer the following questions:

What areas of the body are subject to permanent damage caused by the dangerous chemical discussed in this lesson? (click one or more)
    — Skin (burning)
    — Eyes (blurred vision)
    — Ears (hearing damage)
    — Lungs (breathing problems)
    Answer: Eyes and Lungs

Which of the following is TRUE about the dangerous chemical discussed in the lesson? (Click one or more)
    — It may be found in buildings constructed between 1950 and 1975
    — It is produced by lead paint
    — It can cause eye irritation
    — It cannot be detected
    Answer: It may be found in buildings constructed between 1950 and 1975, and it can cause eye     irritation.

Follow Emily Anne Epstein on Twitter @EmilyAEpstein


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