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Is the FDNY Racist?

By Tom deignan

Driving along Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn the other day, a fire truck passed me by. The rig had the words “Flatbush Trucking Company” emblazoned upon it, and was festooned with bright green shamrocks.

This, of course, is nothing unusual. The fire department remains heavily Irish, and houses with a particularly strong Irish presence are rarely shy about flaunting it. For example, members of Engine 281/Ladder 147, also in Brooklyn, wear t-shirts emblazoned with Celtic crosses marked “9-11-01.” 

This all came to my mind last week when it was announced that the Justice Department was looking into the FDNY’s hiring practices to see if the department — which is over 90% white — is discriminatory in its hiring practices.

It is amazing that in a city which is nearly 50% black and Hispanic, and which has not been predominantly Irish for decades, that the FDNY remains so white in general and Irish in particular. (This even though most stats suggest that there are, in fact, more Italians on the job.)

It is also interesting that many people don’t question Irish symbols on a fire truck, yet might pause if they saw, say, German or Brazilian or Puerto Rican or Canadian symbols. 

All of this begs these questions — is the FDNY still a boys’ club for Irish and other white ethnic Catholics from the outer boroughs and Long Island? Is the FDNY discriminating against blacks, Hispanics and women?

The numbers make it tempting to answer in the affirmative to both of these questions. But numbers do not tell the whole story. 

Does the FDNY need to diversify its ranks? Absolutely. 

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta acknowledged this in his reaction to the Justice Department probe when he said, “The Fire Department has the same goals as does the Department of Justice: to be certain that our testing and hiring practices are fair and non-discriminatory and that we increase diversity in the FDNY. We want a Department that reflects the communities we serve and we are working vigorously to achieve this goal.” 

But to simply say that the FDNY’s hiring practices are racist is to go too far. Why is the FDNY so thoroughly white? 

For an answer to that question, let’s turn to a firefighter-turned-TV star Tom Westman. A lieutenant who works out of Ladder Company 108 in Williamsburg, Westman is a star on the current Survivor series and also one of many Irish Americans who followed their fathers into the FDNY.

“It tends to be a family business,” Westman was recently quoted as saying. “And it’s not because parents are telling you you’ll get rich doing this, but because they had a rich life doing it. It’s just a rewarding experience.”

Even as the Irish left New York City itself, so many maintained ties to the city’s civil service jobs. Those ties were often passed onto sons. 

The FDNY, thus, remains a “family business.” It just so happens that many of those families were — and are — Irish.

Of course, the FDNY, and even individual firefighters, are not entirely blameless here. This Justice Department probe comes not long after a black firefighter reportedly found a noose in his firehouse locker. 

Was this an accident? A joke? Maybe. 

But ask an Irishman how he’d feel about finding a Union Jack in his locker on St. Patrick’s Day, and you see that if this is a joke, it’s not all that funny.

It also can’t be denied that if the FDNY is not, at the moment, exclusionary, it was not too long ago. The noble words about respecting any and all people so long as they do “the job” sound quite hollow when you hear about young African American probie Al Washington.

He showed up for his first day of work in the early 1970s at Engine Company 290 in Brooklyn, only to find “racial epithets written on the firehouse blackboard,” as Terry Golway writes in his excellent history of the FDNY from 2002.

The hard truth of the matter is that other big city fire departments have managed to diversify at a much faster pace than the FDNY. And yet, even knowing all this, the Justice Department investigators who are currently on the FDNY’s case should approach this delicate issue with caution. 

They should not barrel into town with statistics in their hands and say something like, Look, you are all a bunch of bigots and that’s that.

After all, the FDNY “family” is in the business of risking their own lives, and should thus be treated with the respect such work deserves.

(Contact Sidewalks at tomdeignan@earthlink.net.)


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