Today in Albany a Civil Service Commission is meeting to consider a cadet program aimed at increasing racial and gender diversity in the New York City Fire Department. The proposed program grew out of the 2014 settlement over claims of intentional discrimination in CCR’s case Vulcans Society v. City of New York, which required that the FDNY work with the New York City Department of Education and the City University of New York (CUNY) to develop educational and other opportunities that enhance the ability of young people in New York City to pursue careers as New York City firefighters. The Fire Cadet Program being considered today is one such effort.
The cadet program would provide two-years of coursework and paid, internship-style work with the FDNY for college-age, high school graduates in New York City, giving them on-the-job experience and allowing them to demonstrate and develop qualities that make good firefighters, including discipline, perseverance, leadership, and a dedication to public service. After those two years, participants will be eligible to take the FDNY’s civil service firefighter entrance exam exam, and those who pass it will be placed on a fast-track civil service firefighter hiring list, much like the hiring list for FDNY Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT’S) who take and pass the FDNY civil service firefighter entrance exam.
While the cadet program will be open to all potential participants and will not include preferences for members of unrepresented groups, merely by promoting the program and drawing cadets from New York City communities, the FDNY will get a more diverse applicant pool. Many New York City firefighters do not actually live in New York City, but travel into the city from surrounding, and less racially diverse, areas. Moreover, studies have shown that a significant number of firefighters are influenced to pursue their careers by friends and family members who are or were New York City firefighters, and the vast majority of these current or ex-FDNY firefighters are white males. This means that, unless there are proactive efforts to recruit a more diverse set of applicants, historical factors will perpetuate the existing lack of diversity.
Regrettably, the New York City firefighters union opposes this program. They argue that the applicants who come out of the program will not be qualified to be firefighters. The unions offered the same baseless argument when the FDNY’s firefighter entrance exam was modified so as to be more relevant to the job firefighters actually do, as well as when members of the plaintiff class in CCR’s lawsuit were retroactively hired, even though those class members had to take and pass that same firefighter entrance exam. In both cases, the suggestion that those hired to the department would be unqualified to be firefighters was shown to be untrue. It is similarly untrue with respect to the proposed cadet program. (Honestly, how can on-the-job experience yield less qualified applicants?)
Moreover, the program being considered today is modeled after a similar program that proved quite successful when operated by the FDNY in the late 1990’s and early 2000s, hiring a more diverse pool of equally qualified firefighters. It is also similar to an existing program the NYPD uses to ensure a diverse police force—for all the NYPD’s shortcomings, including racially discriminatory policing practices, the NYPD is vastly better than the FDNY in terms of the racial and gender diversity of its officers. We are confident the FDNY cadet program will be similarly successful, and optimistic that it will be adopted.