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FDNY Succeeding in Attracting Minorities, but They Need to Know How to Prepare

by
Cassie Fields
May 16, 2012, 9:45 am ET

Fire Department of New York officials announced this month that a record number of minorities took its firefighter exam this spring. The Fire Department says nearly 46 percent of the potential recruits were members of minority groups. The number of women test-takers also saw an increase this year. Nearly 2,000 women took the test. That’s more than the past three test years combined. That’s a good thing, but it’d be even better if these applicants were even more prepared. More on that in a minute.

Big Improvement

New York has long struggled with hiring a diverse workforce in both its fire and police departments. Of the 11,200 uniformed firefighters in New York City, just 9 percent are Black or Hispanic. The FDNY may have finally implemented an effective (though court-ordered) recruitment effort and attracted a diverse group of applicants.

John Combs, president of the black firefighters’ group called the Vulcan Society, made an important point by saying he “hopes the increases in minorities taking the test translate into actual employment.” Those from disadvantaged backgrounds (e.g., minorities) often fail to pass all of the selection components, and even if they do, they do so at a lower level than others.

Here’s why: The number of candidates selected compared to the number who apply is very low. There are insufficient preparatory and information sessions for applicants about the job, recruit school, selection process components, and the personality traits needed for both the job, and the extended hiring and training program. While it appears that the New York Fire Department offers information on its website, information about the job, recruit school, and the remainder of the selection process is lacking. The most important information — how to prepare for the process — could not be found online. Fire department selection processes may include background investigations, interviews, physical ability tests, and more.

More often than not, candidates from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and women who are often unfamiliar with the public safety environment are much less prepared to compete in the selection process than those who have sufficient information needed to succeed. The solution to limited exposure is a comprehensive study and dissemination of the information applicants need to advance in their careers. Here are some examples of exposure that could potentially help applicants land a job with the New York Fire Department:

  • Volunteering in a fire department. A person who volunteers and learns about the environment walks into the Fire Department selection and training process better prepared than a person without this experience.
  • A person who studies building construction manuals and hydraulics for the fire service would have an advantage in this process.
  • A person who can demonstrate that they are a team player will have an advantage because firefighters live in the same firehouse and work together on fire incidents.

In the interview process a candidate who has this type of knowledge, skills, abilities and exposures, will increase his/her probability of success.

These examples are an extremely small sample of the information needed to ace the selection process. Collecting information and preparing for a selection process takes time and effort, but it pays off in the long run.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Steve Levy

    As I write this, I’m sitting in a Starbucks on Queens Blvd; 305 Engine came by 5 minutes ago on a run.

    Squad 1 in Park Slope, Brooklyn is my adopted house; my friend from Squad was murdered on 9/11 along with a few other thousand people. Mind you, no one paid attention to the color of the FFs or POs skin when they were running up the towers.

    I personally know well over 100 current and retired FDNY FFs; some are Battalion Chiefs, Captains, and Lts. and command exceptionally busy houses where the recipients of their services see only the best FFs in the world.

    So…

    Have you seen the progression of the actual qualifying written test throughout the years? It’s downright – and pathetically – easy these days. For those who are thinking what kind of cognitive tests are given to those wanting to join the FDNY, here’s the link (http://www.nyc.gov/html/fdny/html/community/2012_ff_tutorials.shtml) to elements of the test and even “tutorials” on how to prepare for it. How much easier should this be made?

    Once they pass the test, there’s a physical – people would be surprised how many people fail the physical (there’s no shortcut here; firefighting is a physical job). Then there’s The Rock…have to be in shape to climb stairs with 100lbs of equipment on you. People fail out here too.

    You state that nowhere to be found is how to prepare for the test and assert that those unfamiliar with the public safety environment are often ill-prepared to take the test. Nowhere – other than ROTC – does the military prepare kids to join the armed forces yet people of all categories join and learn to be Soldiers, Marines, etc. You prepare for the test by going to school and staying fit – not too much to ask. I’d wager there are but only a few people in NYC who have never seen an FDNY Engine, Truck or Ladder drive by on a run. So it’s not as if the FDNY is a foreign concept to most New Yorkers.

    It’s not the test preparation that drives someone to become a FDNY FF but the branding of the job as a lifestyle; if there has been one fault of the unit it has been its failure to sell the job. This too is being remedied through outreach, education, and branding. The Vulcan Society has been appropriately vocal in the news and in communities about selling the job.

    John Coomb’s comment is one shared by every recruiter who searches for talent in their respective talent pool: we all hope that a larger talent pool will produce a larger number of hires. Yet there isn’t a proportional relationship to this – look up “regression to the mean” – and we’re often left frustrated by the paucity of great people. So we then wisely move to building talent communities – which takes a great deal of time (and is being done by the FDNY).

    Every sources of hire study will describe a very wide funnel top that narrows to an eye dropper at the bottom; preparation will only take someone so far if they don’t really want to be a firefighter. Those who really want to be a firefighter will train by running and lifting – it is NOT necessary to know how to use a Halligan ahead of time – and might even hang out by their local firehouse. I can’t think of any house that would turn down the chance to educate someone who wants to be a FF later on in life no matter what the color of their might be.

    As far as personality traits, firefighting is for Triple Type A people; you have to love the thrill of going into the unknown, confronting the unknown, and helping people. For certain it helps to have a FF in the family; what better way to sell the job than by a Dad, Uncle, Grandfather, or neighbor. Clearly this is “missing” in the minority talent pools but we’re often talking about decades of influence in the prototypical FDNY talent community. So it’s not so much that the personality is missing as is the influencers.

    In the end, having an influencer, studying, and keeping fit are most closely related to becoming a FF. The FDNY has done much to remedy shortcomings of the past well before King Garaufis’ efforts (http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/editorials/test_for_king_garaufis_Ho3lD6a0S7iahzNpU1DFiJ?utm_medium=rss&utm_content=Editorials) to force more change.

    By the way, you state that the NYPD has long “struggled” – here’s a fairly recent WSJ article about NYPD diversity: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704415104576066302323002420.html. Promotion takes time and retirements; over the long haul, the upper ranks will also reflect the lower ranks.

    In the end, you’re article blames the test and preparation for the test and focuses on the number of applicants rather than focusing on how to improve the quality of the applicants.

    Thanks for reading my rant.

  2. Cassi Fields

    Thanks for your interest in my post. One of your last paragraphs struck me when you said that “having an influencer, studying, and keeping fit are most closely related to becoming a FF.” I would agree that these three things would be very helpful to getting the job. However, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and in many cases women, don’t have that information to begin with, but if they obtain this information, how do they turn it into effective behaviors for advancement? There may be no one to influence or mentor them. You noted that minorities and females don’t necessarily have the firefighter lineage. There may be no one to teach them to study effectively, if they came out of a poor school system or if during school their primary focus was earning an income and helping their families, not studying. What if there is no one to teach them what information to study or tell them the type of physical fitness needed on the fireground (e.g., lifting a ladder off a truck, traveling through dark, hot smoky spaces, carrying victims, etc.)? And this is only a subset of the missing information. This lack of information is true for most jobs in most industries, and you can get that missing if you know how. Not having information does not make people unintelligent or unmotivated, it simply makes them uninformed and that puts them at a severe disadvantage when competing for a job.

  3. Keith Halperin

    I think that firefighters, police, military, and teachers are the under-paid and under-recognized heroes of our country. It’s a sad commentary that we decide to pay 100 times more to some people who move funds from one place to another making rich people richer than the real contributors who protect, save, and positively influence our current and future generations.

    Keith

  4. Cassi Fields

    Thanks for your response to my post! I have worked in a support role to public safety organizations for about 22 years. I agree that they are an incredibly important and influential part of our society. We need them to have the resources they need to succeed!

  5. Steve Levy

    @Cassi

    In NYC, the FDNY is as ubiquitous as any company (with the possible exception these days being JPMorgan).

    Making excuses for not studying by evoking the non-presence of an influencer is a slap in the face of the “disadvantaged” people – minorities, women, whomever – who manage to rise up from their backgrounds and succeed in any venture.

    Surprisingly, many FFs do not have a firefighting lineage but know that FFs save lives; same with those who choose to join the military (plenty of “disadvantaged” people join the military without ever having held a weapon). They know that both jobs are physical and being in top physical condition is an advantage coming in; they do not need to know how to lift a ladder off a truck or how to go on a 20 mile hike with gear on.

    The real issue here is the presence of an initiative that brands the FDNY as a great career and lifestyle choice for any one who seeks a certain kind of environment. Just like any company with specific recruiting initiatives…

    BTW, http://new-nyc.org/

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