THE PAID DEPARTMENT
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Reflecting the Communities They Serve
To operate the first fire engines brought to New York from England in 1731, local citizens turned out when the alarm of fire was sounded. As the City grew and more firefighting equipment was added, it was still these local citizens that became members of the various fire companies that were formed. As such, they were a mirror image of the neighborhood where the company was located, so much so, that they often all worked in the same industry. As such, the rosters contained mostly Dutch or English names like Petrus Kip, Johannes Roome and David Van Gelder. This remained true when the NY State Legislature formally incorporated the Fire Department of the City of New York in 1798.
When the Irish famine brought starving masses to America in the 1850’s Gaelic surnames greatly increased on the rolls. The first African-American FDNY member came upon the merger with the Brooklyn Fire Department in 1898. He was joined in 1902 and 1914 by two others, but the Department was far from fair when it came to race. With the diversity of returning veterans from World War 1, this began to change with many ethnic names beginning to appear. In 1919, Wesley A. Williams was appointed to the job. Williams led the way for other African-Americans. Though he struggled through extremely difficult times, he was undaunted in his commitments, not only to diversity, but to the job of firefighting itself, advancing through the ranks to Battalion Chief. In 1940 he established the Vulcan Society as a way to coalesce and support the black firefighters.
In 1982, the first female firefighters, 40 of them, were accepted to the FDNY Academy. This might not have happened were it not for a successful class action lawsuit brought against the City of New York challenging the validity of the physical portion of the qualifying examination. The suit was initiated by Brenda Berkman who was one of the 11 women that graduated from the Academy and were appointed to active duty in 1983. Ms. Berkman served for 23 years, rising to the rank of Lieutenant.
With more and more firefighters now residing in suburban communities as allowed, the diversity of the FDNY has been criticized as being not reflective of the population of the five boroughs. To address this, the Department has increased its recruiting efforts within the City and has initiated a number of youth programs targeted at NYC school children. These include the FDNY Explorer Scout Troop, the Vernon A. Richards FDNY High School and an FDNY Cadet program. (The latter has been attempted several times, but is not currently operational.) In 2014 the Office of Diversity and Inclusion was formed.
Banner promoting the increasing diversity of the FDNY hung outside all of the city’s firehouses as part of a multi-media campaign to encourage recruitment for the fire service.