By COLLEEN LONG | Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) -- The federal judge overseeing the effort to diversify the Fire Department of New York approved a new entrance exam Friday that will allow the nation's largest fire department to hire new firefighters for the first time in five years.
Judge Nicholas Garaufis found that the department's most recent test did not discriminate against minorities. The decision comes after years of court fights and strongly-worded opinions from the judge, who called the FDNY "a stubborn bastion of white male privilege."
The city and fire department lauded the approval of the test and say they expect more minorities on the job. The department is down about 650 firefighters since 2007 -- the last time a new class was hired. Garaufis had ruled that earlier entrance exams were discriminatory and ordered the city to create a new one, and he barred any new hiring until the process was complete.
He also took the unusual step of appointing an independent monitor to oversee the recruitment, testing and hiring of new firefighters for at least 10 years after concluding the city had failed to ensure that enough minorities were part of the department.
Just about 10 percent of the more than 10,000 uniformed firefighters are black or Hispanic, even though more than half of the city's 8 million residents identify with a racial minority group.
Work on the new test and a major push to recruit minority candidates has been going on for years. Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano separately created a high-ranking position within the FDNY to oversee and strengthen the department's minority recruitment and diversity programs.
City officials said more than 40 percent of the 9,400 top scorers on the new test -- the most likely to become firefighters -- are minorities. Overall, about 42,000 prospective candidates took the test and about 40,000 passed, and a record number of minorities took it.
It's not clear yet when the class will be hired -- exam results will be published next week, and then a physical exam must be administered.
"The FDNY's strong commitment to diversity was evident in our recruitment campaign for this exam," Cassano said in a statement. "We're pleased that we can now begin hiring."
The federal court became involved after a black fraternal FDNY organization called the Vulcan Society filed a U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission complaint more than a decade ago charging the exam given to FDNY applicants was littered with SAT-like questions that didn't adequately test for firefighting skills.
The exam is the weightiest factor in determining whether a candidate gets on a hiring list; a physical test and a few other components also play a role.
The U.S. Department of Justice took up the case and filed a federal lawsuit, and Garaufis ruled in 2009 in favor of the Vulcan Society and the Justice Department. In a separate decision, he said the test was being used to discriminate intentionally and called it a "stain" on an otherwise sterling department.
The Vulcan Society and Justice Department filed papers this week saying they didn't oppose the new test.
Chicago's 4,300-member fire department, the nation's second largest, is 20 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic, reflecting the city's general demographic makeup. But a federal appeals court in May 2011 ruled a 1995 test was discriminatory, and the city has to hire 111 black firefighters and pay millions of dollars to thousands more who took and passed the same test.
In Los Angeles, about 14 percent of the 3,500 or so firefighters are black, and about 30 percent are Hispanic.