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FDNY Far Behind In Racial, Gender Diversity

FDNY Far Behind In Racial, Gender Diversity

New York Daily News via YellowBrix

September 06, 2010

The debate over diversity in the FDNY has focused on one statistic – 91% of the Bravest are white.

But in the shadow of the legal battle to bring more blacks and Hispanics into the department lurks another number: 31.

That’s how many female firefighters are employed by the FDNY, the nation’s largest department with about 11,500 members, records show.

It’s the smallest percentage of female firefighters – one-fourth of 1% – among the nation’s top five big-city departments, according to a Daily News analysis.

Of the 31 female firefighters, 18 are white, eight are Latina, four are black and one is Asian.

“The level of respect is the biggest problem. Some men think you are not supposed to be there,” said Firefighter Regina Wilson, 40, president of the United Women Firefighters.

Wilson, an 11-year veteran at Engine 219 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, said it’s her gender more than her skin color that sets her apart. “They see me first as a woman. Then they see the fact that I am black,” she said.

Brooklyn Firefighter Tracy Lewis, 37, recalled years of icy stares from her white male colleagues in Canarsie, Brooklyn. “It was like having cancer and you were dying tomorrow,” said Lewis, a nine-year veteran.

The FDNY is still reeling from a January decision by Brooklyn Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis, who ruled the most recent test administered by the FDNY was biased against nonwhites. Garaufis blocked the 300 probies who were to be hired from that test.

The force is 89% white, but 38% of the applicants who passed the latest test were minorities.

FDNY officials say they are trying hard to improve gender and racial diversity. The department revamped recruiting methods four years ago, traveling to hundreds of multicultural parades, parties and career fairs across the city, said Michele Maglione, director of the Office of Recruitment and Diversity.

“What we are trying to do takes time,” Maglione said. “This is not an overnight effort.”

This year, the FDNY has collected more than 5,300 “expression of interest” forms from women thinking about joining the Bravest. Still, the FDNY ranks lowest out of the nation’s top five most-populated cities when it comes to female hiring.

Passing the written exam is only the first hurdle in becoming a firefighter. Top scorers must take a physical test, which is the same for men and women.

The United Women Firefighters offers upper-body strength training to help applicants meet the grueling physical demands.

“People have this misunderstanding that you have to be extremely muscular. It is not about that. A lot of this stuff is technique,” Lewis said.

The FDNY’s first class of 41 women was hired in 1982.

Younger women hired after Wilson and Lewis told The News they have felt welcomed in the predominantly male department. “If you are dying and need to get out of a fire, you won’t care if a man or a woman drags you out,” said Sarinya Srisakul, 29, a Thai-American who said she is the department’s first Asian female firefighter – and a lesbian and vegan.

Asked why her male co-workers tease her at Engine 5 in the East Village, she laughed: “It’s because I am vegan.”

“I feel like I have 30 brothers. And they are all farting in my face,” Srisakul said with a smile.