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New York City's Fire Commissioner On Extinguishing Racial Gap

Salvatore Cassano smiles during a news conference following his swearing-in as New York City's fire commissioner.
Mary Altaffer
Salvatore Cassano smiles during a news conference following his swearing-in as New York City's fire commissioner.

Nearly 250 recruits to New York City's storied fire department graduated on Thursday. The graduating class looks a lot different from the ones before it: Sixty-two percent are members of minority groups. The department has been nearly 90 percent white, a very different demographic than New York City's population.

Two years ago, a federal judge ruled that the city's entrance exams discriminated against black and Hispanic applicants. So the court ordered new exams and appointed an independent monitor to oversee changes in recruiting and hiring.

But once they start their jobs at firehouses, the graduates will meet another hurdle, reports The New York Times.

"Some firefighters view the court requirements as a quota system that sacrifices safety for the sake of diversity. Tensions are high enough that the judge who ordered the reforms has been under police protection at his home, and the fire commissioner, Salvatore J. Cassano, took the extraordinary step of dispatching commanders to firehouses to make sure the new arrivals were not mistreated."

Michel Martin, host of Tell Me More , talked with Cassano, who is leading the department through these changes.

Interview Highlights

On whether the standards of the new test are lower

I can tell you and rest anybody's fears, that [at] our probie [probationary firefighter] school, the standards are as high as they've ever been. You still have to do all the physical requirements that a firefighter is required [to do]. And you still have to do all the written material and pass the same test. When I came on the job in 1969, probie 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 probie school has passed the requirements that were required of them, and nothing has been lowered. And the quality of candidate that we're getting out is tremendous.

On why he thinks the fire department has not been as diverse as other institutions in American life

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 job. Not only for pay — you know, people always talk about pay. It's an extremely rewarding job. ...

When we got into areas that we may not have recruited as heavily ... for the 2012 [test], I went to minority churches and areas throughout the city and when I explained the benefits, not only paywise but satisfaction-wise, [and that you'd have] a second family, God forbid something happen ... they didn't know those benefits; they didn't understand that. ... How many great firefighters did we miss because they didn't know the benefits of the job?

On whether he thought the previous test had such disparate effects

Michel, 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 if there's a disparate impact from what I understand, then they're going to rule that the test is discriminatory. You know, for the 2012 exam, we went to a company, PSI, that's very reputable throughout the country, who's done exams for other departments ... and the exams they did passed that test of being fair and equitable and not having a disparate impact. Now we didn't know if it would have a disparate impact or not until we gave it. And it was obvious that the way the process — a very detailed process — the most scrutinized test that I've ever been involved with in my history of the department, of 44 years. The results have been great, almost 40 percent minority candidates. And I think that this is the system that we're going to use in place for the tests to come for our entering candidates.

On the women who have gone through probie class

There are about 30 women; we have about four graduating in this class. I believe we had six or seven in the last class. They're doing OK; they're doing well. The women who got through the last 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. That's another number we really have to reach out to. Again, in this list, we have almost 1,800 candidates on the list. ... But it's an underrepresented category and we're looking to increase women firefighters.

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Tell Me More Staff