Black Firefighters Battling More Than Blazes

The New Crisis, September/October 2002 | Go to article overview

Black Firefighters Battling More Than Blazes


Before hijackers commandeered jumbo jets and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City last year, fire department Capt. Paul Washington felt the issues he had been fighting for, particularly Black recruitment, were, as far as the city was concerned, on the back burner.

The terrorist attacks were roundly called a watershed event, and the mantra from world leaders, including President Bush, was that "everything's changed" since Sept. 11.

Now, a year after the attacks claimed the lives of 343 New York firefighters - 12 of them Black - and the nation bestowed new-found respect on the job he loves, Washington, a 14-year veteran, says it's business as usual for Black firefighters. Their numbers are still far short of being proportionate to the percentage of Blacks in the city, and no relief is in sight.

The 300 or so Black men and women who douse fires for the city of 11.5 million people make up less than 3 percent of the department of 12,000 firefighters, while Blacks are 26 percent of the city population, according to the 2000 Census.

"The same problems exist now that we've always been fighting for - lack of commitment from the administration to recruit Black firefighters," says Washington, who is president of the Vulcan Society, a Brooklyn-based fraternal organization for the city's Black firefighters. He added that there are fewer Black firefighters now than there were in the 1970s after a lawsuit spurred a recruitment drive and an aggressive effort to diversify.

In 1973, complaints that the written entrance exam was racially biased led to an outof-court settlement; a judicial decree prescribed an affirmative action program requiring the city to hire one Black firefighter for every three Whites hired. The ranks of Black firefighters peaked soon after that, Washington says, rising to about 700 in the early 1980s. But since then, the program has been abandoned and the numbers have started dwindling, as many firefighters opt for retirement after 20 years of service,

As leader of the Vulcans, Washington has made it his mandate to increase the number of Black firefighters on the force through recruitment efforts and mentoring. …

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