EAST HARLEM — The number of African-Americans in the Fire Department has nearly doubled in the past two years. At this rate, by next summer there will be more black firefighters than there have ever been in the history of the FDNY.
Of the 305 firefighters who graduated from the FDNY fire academy in May, 16 percent were black, 23 percent were Hispanic and 3 percent were Asian, officials said. Those numbers are relatively similar to the NYPD’s 1,200-member class, which was 18 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Asian. The FDNY's class was more than half white, while the NYPD's was 46 percent white.
The dramatic change in demographics is the result of a federal lawsuit filed against the city in 2007 by the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of black firefighters.
“When they started hiring again in January 2013, they’ve put in six classes and every one of those classes has been much more diverse than they’ve been in the past,” said Capt. Paul Washington, a member of the Vulcan Society. “The class that goes in next summer, a year from now, should bring the highest [number of black firefighters] we’ve ever had.”
Throughout FDNY’s history there have never been more than 650 black firefighters. That is less than 6 percent of the entire department, Washington said.
According to the Vulcan Society, the number of black firefighters in the 10,500-member department has increased from about 320 to 590 since 2013, the year the city lifted a 2008 judge-imposed hiring freeze.
Those numbers include firefighters who are currently in the Fire Academy because they get paid by the FDNY.
"To see that, I am happy," he said. "On the other hand, our historic high is only 6 percent of the force. That tells you we have a long way to go."
Kirk Coy, a retired firefighter who joined the FDNY in 1986, said he welcomed the change.
“I’ve known classes with five guys, three guys, I was the only black guy in my class,” said Coy. “I never thought I would see so many black men and women in the Fire Department.”
Although he made lifelong friends and became part of a close-knit family in the firehouse, Coy said there were many people in the department who did not want him there, especially when he was in the academy.
“I scored high on the exam, but so what? It didn’t change the way they were going to see me,” he said. “Some of the instructors were determined to see me fail.”
The Vulcan Society became a support group for him and many black firefighters around the city. Now when he goes to meetings, he can’t stop smiling because of their victory.
Ginger Adams Otis, a reporter and author of "Fire-Fight: A Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York's Bravest," spent years chronicling the history of the FDNY. In the book, she dives into the Vulcan Society’s lawsuit.
“I really thought, 'Wow these guys are taking on, not only the mayor, not only City Hall, but a billionaire mayor,'” Otis said.
Otis’ book covers everything from Wesley Williams, who became Manhattan’s first black firefighter in 1919, to tense showdowns the Vulcan Society had with FDNY members who opposed the lawsuit, to the federal court ruling.
Otis met Washington when she was a cub reporter covering a press conference for The Chief-Leader in the early 2000s. He and the Vulcan Society were talking about racial disparity in the Fire Department — at the time the FDNY was only 3 percent black.
Around the time the lawsuit was settled, she decided to write "Fire-Fight" because it’s a story that she felt would resonate with people in New York City and beyond, she said.
“I think Americans tend to like underdogs and we tend to like underdogs stories,” she said. “I know that the same challengers the Vulcans faced here have existed in other cities.”
New York isn't the only city where racial disparity is an issue. In June, a federal judge found evidence that the Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department in Florida discriminated against minorities and women in its promotions.