HARLEM — Khalid Baylor wasn't planning to be a firefighter, but eight years ago he was looking for a career change when a black firefighter handed him an application for the New York City Fire Department at the Harlem Day Parade.
"I was just out in the crowd and I saw this black firefighter who gave me an application and encouraged me to apply," said Baylor, a Harlem resident.
He then went a step beyond. He made copies of the application and handed them out to his friends. Eight years later, Baylor, is an example of both the success and difficulties of recruiting minorities to the largest firefighting force in the country.
None of his friends followed through with the fire department application, but today, Baylor is a firefighter with Engine 35/ Ladder 14 on East 124th Street and Third Avenue. He is also one of the faces of the FDNY's efforts to diversify its ranks, appearing on a new FDNY ad campaign with his 11-year-old son Khalid.
"What I have seen is that a lot of community residents don't know about the job opportunities with the fire department," Baylor said.
The department has come under fire for actively shutting out minority candidates, and a federal judge ruled in 2009 that the FDNY's written recruitment examination from 1999 to 2007 discriminated against blacks and Latinos.
As a result of the lawsuit filed by the Justice Department and black firefighters, the FDNY had to work with a federal monitor and black firefighters to develop a new test. That exam will be tested on current black firefighters in August with hopes of being ready for the Jan. 2012 exam.
The exam will be the first issued by the FDNY since a federal judge halted hiring in 2008, said Darius Charney, a lawyer from the Center for Constitutional Rights who represented minority firefighters in the suit.
That's why FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said the department is spending $1 million in advertising in an effort to recruit the most diverse firefighting class ever.
"Being a New York City firefighter is the greatest job in the world," Cassano said at Engine 37/Ladder 40 on West 125th Street. "They run into burning buildings....they keep New York safe from terrorists and when you ask a kid what they want to do when they grow up, they say say firefighter."
Firefighters start off at about $40,000 per year and can earn $100,000 after just five years on the job. The job also offers a generous pension, flexible work schedule and generous lifetime health benefits.
"It's been my career, an extension of my family, it's been my life," Cassano said of his four decades with the department.
But the difficulties in recruiting minorities to the overwhelmingly white fire department persist. Minorities, including women, make up only about 10 percent of the department's approximately 11,000 firefighters. There are only 29 women among that group and those numbers are declining due to attrition, said Regina Wilson, president of the United Women Firefighters.
"Can we get to a percentage? We are not even at one percent of the department," Wilson said.
She said women needed to see other women on the job and know that they could train to handle the physical requirements of the job.
"When you see a firehouse filled with white men, you think it's just a job for white men," Wilson said. "If you don't plant the seed, no one will know. Let's keep the red doors open and allow people to come in and see what this job is about."
The numbers of Asian and gay firefighters lag even more severely than those of African Americans, Latinos and women, added Lieutenant George Ricco Diaz, president of the Hispanic Society.
Cassano said the results have been good so far. More than 30,000 people have expressed interest in taking the test. The department has held thousands of recruiting events in minority communities and will advertise in urban media. The FDNY has about 300 slots to fill.
The tens of thousands of candidates who took the old test from 1999 to 2007 that was ultimately ruled to be discriminatory will have to re-apply for a position with the department and take the new test.
The City Council last year raised the age limit for FDNY rookies to 35 from 29 for those who took the test during those years. That means they will be eligible to take the test again in January.
The deadline to register for the January 2012 test is September 15.
Charney called the changes a "good start," but said the commissioner also has to get minority firefighters out into the community.
"They are the best recruiting tool. People need to see firefighters who look like them," Charney said.
Some minority firefighters said they were hopeful the changes would help.
"I'm optimistic because the biggest downfall of recruiting has been the lack of advertising and the lack of the community being aware of the opportunity," Diaz said.
"I'm encouraged that it will be a different test, a better exam," said John Coombs, president of the Vulcan Society, a black fraternal firefighters group. "We want the city to be more represented in the FDNY."
Baylor said the job has allowed him to provide well for his family while gaining the respect of his community. He still works to recruit other monorities to the job.
"This job gives you a stable foundation while allowing you to still be there for your family," he said. "It's a dangerous job but you are saving lives. You are guarding your community."