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Who Will Hold the FDNY Accountable on Diversity?

Nearly 10 years ago, a federal judge ordered the New York City Fire Department to hire a more diverse workforce that reflects the city’s demographics, and to foster a firehouse culture that is welcoming to employees of all backgrounds. 

And, while some progress has been made with initial recruitment of Black and Hispanic firefighters, advocates say that little has changed in firehouse culture – and the judge who ordered the FNDY to make these improvements is admonishing the Department for failing to change.

The lack of progress seemed to frustrate Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of the Eastern District of New York. He seemed tired by the end of the October special status conference, cutting through the day’s excuses, saying that the Department needed the “buy-in of the middle management of the fire department” to “get this done.” 

“There’s no other way of doing it,” Garaufis added. “More people have to be committed to achieving these goals.” 

Firefighter Corey Boykins experienced the cultural resistance that perceived outsiders face. Boykins said in an interview that, after fielding repeated harassment at his firehouse for being gay, he wanted to transfer to a firehouse with at least one woman or LGBTQ firefighter. That way, he said, he would “be able to bounce stuff off them, what’s okay, what’s not okay.” 

But, Boykins was again assigned to a firehouse that employed only men. He is again the only LGBTQ-identifying firefighter. He said that he was told by the department “that they’re not going to set a precedent for me, that’s not going to happen.”

 

Incremental Improvement

 

Boykin’s experience points to larger issues, but the City Council passed a package of legislative measures in November 2022 designed to enforce the FDNY’s stated commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion which could change things. While the FDNY has made strides in improving the diversity of initial recruits, it has floundered in attempts to keep Black, Hispanic and female-identifying candidates engaged throughout the hiring process and the probationary year. 

The lag time between initial recruit testing and actual intake can be more than five years. Many candidates that come from firefighter families or communities know to structure their lives and careers with this wait in mind. The majority of BIPOC candidates, in contrast, enter the fire department with no prior connections, based on the department’s own statements at the September 2022 City Council hearing

Once placed in a house, a probationary firefighter or “probie” does not have union support until they finish out their first year. This means that the recruits who don’t have strong existing firefighter networks, often BIPOC, LGBTQ, and female probies, often have less recourse for harassment that they may face during their probationary year, as they can easily be fired. Advocates say the culture of hazing the outsider has made retention of diverse candidates abysmal.

The numbers reflect this. Statistically, the changes in diversity have been incremental. Based on court documents, when the lawsuit began in 2007, the FDNY employed approximately 3% Black firefighters and 7% Hispanic. In 2009, when United Women Firefighters joined the lawsuit, only 32 of the nearly 10,000 firefighters were women, or just .25% of the force.

Based on data presented to the City Council in September 2022, the FDNY is still over 75% White, and only approximately 8% Black, 13% Hispanic, and 1% Female. The city is roughly 32% White, 23% Black, 29% Hispanic, and more than 50% female, according to the latest Census 

A 2020 report from the National Fire Protection Association shows that nationwide, 9% of firefighters are female, meaning the city lags behind on gender inclusion at a national level, too. The most recent City Council report also showed that if current hiring trends continue, the FDNY is not going to catch up to demographics in the next 15 years.

Regina Wilson is well aware of these issues. Wilson is a board member of the Vulcan Society, the association for Black firefighters in New York City, and for 12 years, she has been directly involved in the effort to increase the percentage of Black, Hispanic, and female firefighters at the FDNY. She helped design an initiative that puts new city resident firefighters in the house of their choosing, often placing them in their own neighborhood. 

“Firefighters who work in Black neighborhoods, actually looking like the communities they serve, would be an amazing tool for recruitment,” Wilson said.

These issues are personal for Wilson. She still remembers the isolation of being one of only seven Black people in her class of 300 at the New York Fire Academy.

It was 1999, and she stood out even more, as the only woman. 

Wilson has helped create initiatives to help attract recruits that better represent the makeup of the city. One of the most successful has been stationing FDNY recruiters in majority-minority communities to get minority candidates interested on a career path that they might not traditionally have considered, or even seen as available.

The lack of improvement has gotten so frustrating that she is running for a second term as president of the Vulcan Society. She is seeking a leadership position within the Vulcan Society to ensure a seat at the table when decisions are being made about how to move forward with the new City Council Legislation passed in November 2022 and the state and federal FDNY cases. 

In August, the Vulcans took a vote of no confidence in the FDNY Equal Employment Opportunity Office. This came at a time when the Equal Employment Opportunity Office is so severely understaffed that 65% of its cases are running over the 90 day initial investigation limit. 

When Judge Garaufis heard about the staffing shortage, he seemed frustrated. 

“Don’t ever come back and tell me there’s only four people who are doing the job for the EEO at the fire department after I’ve been working on this case with you since 2007. 2007. It’s not fair to you. It’s not fair to the Court. It’s not fair to the plaintiffs. It’s not fair,” he said. 

Wilson brought the Vulcan Society no confidence vote to Garaufis’ attention at the September conference, as well. Garaufis was concerned enough to schedule an extra conference for October. 

 

“It is all stall tactics”

 

It is nearly impossible to unearth systematic evidence to contradict the FDNY’s heroic image. Between 1976 and 2020, all misconduct complaints (including nepotism, drinking on the job, and a wide range of hazing) that resulted in disciplinary actions were kept confidential under a section of the New York Civil Rights Law known as the secrecy law.

In April 2021, the Uniformed Firefighters Association – the firefighters union in New York – was forced to give up its legal challenge seeking to overturn the secrecy law. However, the FDNY still has not given access to the misconduct and disciplinary files.

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is engaged in a lawsuit against the FDNY to compel them to provide access to their disciplinary and misconduct records. 

Wilson admits to being cynical when it comes to the motivations of the FDNY on this topic. 

“It is all stall tactics,” she said of the state court case, “If they have nothing to hide, then they should share the records.”

Public access to Equal Employment Opportunity Office records could force real repercussions for misconduct. 

Lupe Aguirre, lead counsel for the NYCLU, said the FDNY “is a public agency with a lot of power,” referencing the implications of the case, “over the lives and safety of New Yorkers. So, it’s important for the public to know about internal racial, and other discriminatory conduct, as well as misconduct in interactions with the public.”

This would be a welcome change for Boykins. 

At first, though he was sometimes an outsider, he was more often part of the antics. Boykins said one time when firefighters prepared a house dinner, his squadmate shaped the ground beef into a butt and told Boykins he should give it a good slap. Boykins said he was happy to play along and give the “meat butt” a good slap. He felt it was not targeting him, but was just a friend pulling him into the jokes. 

Boykins said things changed for the worse after a detail – a firefighter from a different house who is temporarily reassigned to a special placement to either receive new training or meet a need for more personnel – joined the firehouse. 

“It wasn’t until a detail came from a different house that it got really bad,” Boykins remembers. Boykins said the detail constantly targeted him, transforming the more lighthearted firehouse shenanigans from pranks into “hazing.” 

Boykins said that his fellow firefighters and captain were unsupportive when he sought help with the detail’s targeted attacks over his sexuality. The detail was a “hotshot,” so Boykins sees the lack of consequences as a natural byproduct of who gets punished. If the person cited for poor behavior is a “cool a**hole or the frat types, they don’t punish that person.” 

The FDNY refused to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

 

Looking to set a precedent

 

When Boykins tried to submit a complaint, he discovered the FDNY Equal Employment Opportunity Office does not have a website. While a PDF of the complaint form was available to be downloaded, there is no portal to submit it. Contacting the Equal Employment Opportunity Office requires calling the fire department headquarters. When Boykins tried this they refused to transfer him and repeatedly requested his name.

Boykins said he attempted to report what he experienced to Lieutenant Darius Dorsett in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, but he said, instead he faced further discrimination based on his sexual orientation by Dorsett.

A higher up in the department filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Office report on his behalf that night, unbeknownst to Boykins. 

Boykins was stationed at FDNY headquarters at the time due to an unrelated injury. He began recording from his phone from the moment he entered the building the next day, in fear of being confronted by Dorsett. In the recording reviewed for this article, Dorset can be heard saying, “you asked me a question about sex?”

As the recording continued, after a series of back and forth denials between Boykins and Dorsett, Boykins asked him to restate what he had asked the day before. Dorsett replied, referring to Boykins’ sexual orientation as a choice.

This was enough evidence for the Equal Employment Opportunity Office to substantiate the claim of discrimination on the basis of sexuality. However, based on court documents posted online in a video clip by NY1, Dorsett remained in his position at the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for several months. Repeated efforts to reach Dorsett for comment were unsuccessful. 

In the interview, Boykins explained that he is refusing the financial settlement offered by the FDNY because he is looking to set a precedent for future discrimination settlements for other firefighters. Boykins made it clear that he believes firehouse culture will only change when the lawsuits get so expensive that taxpayers start to take notice.

Even if the Equal Employment Opportunity Office finds evidence to substantiate a misconduct claim, they can’t guarantee the firehouse will carry out their disciplinary ruling. Acting FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavaunagh publicly addressed this issue at the Sept. 19 City Council meeting on diversity in the FDNY.

In a couple of cases that are now under investigation, she said, “the Equal Employment Opportunity Office Office ordered something and those directives were not followed in the field.”

About the author(s)

Nina Dietz is a Columbia University Stabile Investigative Journalism fellow covering the environment, social justice and city politics.