New York City's Fire Commissioner On Extinguishing Racial Gap : Code Switch Two years after a federal judge ruled that New York City's fire department's tests discriminated against blacks and Hispanics, nearly 62 percent of graduates from the most recent class of the FDNY's training academy are minorities.
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New York City's Fire Commissioner On Extinguishing Racial Gap

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New York City's Fire Commissioner On Extinguishing Racial Gap

New York City's Fire Commissioner On Extinguishing Racial Gap

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll hear from a medical doctor who has started a service to treat what she calls the silent epidemic in Nigeria and other African countries of traumatic injuries that would be survivable somewhere else. We'll hear what she's doing about that.

But first, it is graduation day for some first responders here at home, nearly 250 recruits to New York City's storied fire department. Today's graduating class looks a lot different from the ones before it. Sixty-two percent are racial minorities. That's by far the highest percentage in the city's history. The department has been overwhelmingly majority white, nearly 90 percent white. A very different demographic than the city's overall population. But two years ago, a federal judge ruled that the city's entrance exams discriminated against black and Hispanic applicants. The court ordered new exams and appointed an independent monitor to oversee changes in recruitment and hiring.

For more on this issue, we are joined now by New York City Fire Department Commissioner Salvatore Cassano. He is leading the department through these changes, and he is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

SALVATORE CASSANO: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Commissioner, you were reportedly sending out commanders to firehouses to make sure that the new recruits will be treated fairly. Why do you think that's necessary?

CASSANO: Well, I'm just trying to be proactive. You know, there's always the controversy because the judge ordered, you know, a new test and we had some hires - priority hires - ordered by the judge. So we just want to be proactive. I want to be proactive because I know how I was treated when I was a firefighter. I walked in the doors, and I was told what to do. I was treated with dignity and respect. I was mentored, and that's what I want from any firefighter that comes out of proby school.

You have to remember, anybody that's coming through proby school has a tough, difficult 18 weeks. And if you can get through that process, you deserve to get into that firehouse and become a firefighter and reach their full potential, whatever that potential is. They should be able to reach that full potential.

MARTIN: You know, in the spirit of full disclosure, Commissioner, I should have disclosed that my father was a career New York City firefighter throughout my entire childhood. And he retired as a fire marshal after having served in firehouses mainly in Brooklyn.

And it has been reported, as a result of the judge's order, that the department was required to take a second look at applicants who didn't make the initial cut. And that has led some people to, you know, wonder whether the standards were watered down, whether these recruits - whether these applicants will be at the same level of quality as those who preceded them. And I'd like to ask you to speak to that.

CASSANO: Absolutely. I can tell you and rest anybody's fears that our proby school - the standards are as high as they've ever been, so that you still have to do all the physical requirements that a fire fighter is required. And you still have to do all the written material and pass the same tests. When I came on the job in 1969, proby school was six weeks. It is now 18 weeks - 18 tough, grueling weeks. So you can rest assured that whoever gets out the door of that proby school has passed all the requirements that were required of them, and nothing has been lowered. And the quality of candidates that we're get out is tremendous.

MARTIN: There were reports that the newer classes, though, have had higher injury and higher dropout rates than previous classes. Is that true? And why do you think that is if it is true?

CASSANO: Well, in this particular class, yes, it is true. The injury rate, the dropout rate was higher. But it wasn't something that wasn't going to be expected. You know, when you have an older candidate - and some of these candidates were older because they were from the 1999 and 2002 lists - they were older. And an older candidate, you know, has to be in terrific shape. So it wasn't unexpected that the injury and dropout rate would be higher. It is stabilized, but again, has nothing to do with the reflection on the candidates that passed.

MARTIN: So just to clarify, you're saying those who took exams that were later found to have been biased by the federal judge, which was in 1999 or 2002, they were allowed to take the exam over. Is that correct?

CASSANO: They were...

MARTIN: They were allowed to enter the department, and then to go through the physical processes. Is that way it is?

CASSANO: Absolutely. But what they had to do was pass the exam that was given - the latest exam that was given in 2004. They had to pass that exam, and then they also had to pass what we call a CPAT test - the physical portion of the test, which is pass/fail. So they had to do all that. So they had to get through. But again, if you're starting proby school at a - some of the candidates were over 40. Kind of difficult, you know, unless you're in terrific shape, to get through the physical portion. But we knew that that might happen. However, they had to be given a fair chance to prove whether they could get through the school or not.

So there was a higher dropout rate. But we're still graduating over 240 candidates that we're very proud of, that I'm very proud of and that they got through this very difficult course, both mentally and physically, to come out to our firehouses. And I expect that they will go into the firehouses and perform very well. I just wanted to get my commanders to get to the firehouses to explain to them this was not a watered-down course. The standards are still high. And that when people come into the firehouse, they should be treated with the dignity and respect that we all were treated with when we became probies and walked into that firehouse door.

MARTIN: You know, around the country, though, the whole question of the diversity of the fire departments has been one that perhaps has not been as public as with debates over other, you know, public entities, like the police department, for example or certain sort of policing strategies. But it's been a very kind of intense, emotional issue, nonetheless. There have been lawsuits in New Haven, in Chicago, in Los Angeles. You know, the Fire Department of New York, by many people, is considered kind of the gold standard. And I have to ask, why do you think it is that the department has not been as diverse as other institutions in American life to this point? Why do you think that is?

CASSANO: Well, I think that people in minority areas where they might not have had a relative on the job. They might not have known the benefits of the fire department, not only for pay - you know, people always talk about pay. It's an extremely rewarding job. And I guess you coming from a fire department family could understand the satisfaction of your dad coming home, even though it was a long day and a tough day, being able to help somebody. There's no other feeling like that. It's not just monetary.

MARTIN: Yeah, except - I don't know any little - little kids at some point all want to be a fireman, don't they?


MARTIN: I mean, fire trucks are ubiquitous. So why wouldn't people see it as a wonderful and satisfying and rewarding career? You know...

CASSANO: That's not true.

MARTIN: Why wouldn't they?

CASSANO: That's not...

MARTIN: You don't think so?

CASSANO: No. I don't think so because when we got into areas that we may not have recruited as heavily - my - personally, for the 2012 exam, I went to minority churches in areas throughout the city. And when I explained the benefits of the job - not only, you know, pay-wise but satisfaction-wise - a second family. God forbid something happens to you, we come to your aid. They didn't know those benefits. They didn't understand that. So but - and again, by doing that, the department getting to areas to recruit that we've never been to before - how many great firefighters did we miss because they didn't know the benefits of the job?

MARTIN: So you think it was a fact that the minority applicants simply weren't applying? Or do you think there was something about the networks that led them to be accepted that might have been flawed?

CASSANO: I just don't think they applied. I personally believe that 'cause when I got into the areas, the churches that I recruited at, and explained the benefits of the job - again, not only the pay. The pay was like, you know, people's eyes open up wide when we talk about the pay. But I think when they start to understand that you're part of this FDNY family that, you know, we all work together, it's teamwork, the satisfaction of helping somebody in need. I don't think people knew that. And the important thing about diversifying in the recruitment areas, it's all about getting the most qualified people from all parts of the city to become a firefighter.

MARTIN: Why do you think that the test had such disparate effects? The test was kind of crucial to the lawsuit. And the test has also been one of those issues that's been hotly disputed in a lot of places where this matter has been litigated. Why do you think that the performance is so different?

CASSANO: Michel...

MARTIN: Has been different?

CASSANO: ...To be honest with you, I did not agree with the judge on the 1999 and 2002 exam. I didn't understand how a test could be discriminatory. But it has - if there's a disparate impact, from what I understand, then they're going to rule that the test is discriminatory. You know, so the 2012 examine, we went to a company, PSI, that's very reputable throughout the country, who's done exams for other departments. And the exams that they did passed that test of being fair and equitable and not having a disparate impact. Now we didn't know whether it was going to have a disparate impact or not until we gave it.

And it was obvious that the way the process was - and a very detailed process - the most scrutinized test that I've ever been involved with in my history in the department of 44 years - the results have been great. Almost 40 percent minority candidates. And I think that this is a system that we're going to use in place for the tests to come for, you know, for our entering candidates.

MARTIN: I do need to ask you about how the women are doing. As I understand it, that there are, what, are about 30 women now serving?

CASSANO: It's about 30 women. We have four graduating in this class. I believe we had six or seven in the last class. Again...

MARTIN: How are they doing?

CASSANO: They're doing OK. They're doing well, and the women that got through the class are doing well. Some dropped out. Again, it's a very physical job. We can't tell women enough that they have to prepare. And we're helping them to prepare. Again, that's another number that we really have to reach out to. But again, in this list, we have almost 1,800 candidates on the list. So with that many on the list, we should get more hired. And we're working with the women's organization to allow them to look at the training academy, work with our academy instructors. But it is an underrepresented category that we really are looking to increase, you know, women firefighters.

MARTIN: You are the 32nd fire commissioner in the 148-year history of the New York City Fire Department. What will be your metric to know whether you have succeeded in this job?

CASSANO: In what area? I mean, there's many...

MARTIN: Whatever area you choose - for you.

CASSANO: Well, listen, you know, to me, the - in my mind, the proudest moment that I feel I can say I made a big difference was after September 11. This department was devastated. We lost 343 members, tons of equipment, and we had to rebuild.

And me being involved in the rebuilding of this department for last 12 years, for me, that's the metric I'm going to look at, and say, I made a difference. And the time - the worst time this department ever faced to be involved in every decision for the last 12 years 'cause I've been involved. I was the chief of operations, promoted - field promotion the next week. And being involved as first of chief of operations, then the chief of department and the fire commissioner - for every decision made in the last 12 years, I'm going to look at that metric and be able to hold my head up very high.

MARTIN: Salvatore Cassano is commissioner of the New York City Fire Department. He was with us on the line from his office. Commissioner, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CASSANO: Thank you, Michel.

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