The New York City Fire Department held a graduation ceremony Thursday with its latest class of probationary recruits, but this is no ordinary group of firefighters, as a court battle led to the most diverse class the city has ever seen. NY1's Zack Fink filed the following report.
During the next few days, 242 probationary firefighters, or "Probies," will begin reporting to their assigned fire stations located throughout the city.
This class is unique. Not only are some of the recruits a little older than the average member of a new class, but the class as a whole is 62 percent minority, the most ethnically diverse ever.
"The members of this graduating class come from a wide range of backgrounds, and together, you bring a wealth of different experiences to the job," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Bloomberg welcomed the recruits at a graduation ceremony Thursday, even though it was his administration that fought to prevent court-imposed changes.
In 2009, a federal judge found that entrance exams had unfairly discriminated against black and Hispanic applicants. As a result, some recruits who had failed the entrance exam as far back as 1999 were permitted to retake it. In those cases, the age requirement was waived.
This approach has stirred controversy because critics say it amounts to a two-tiered system where diversity is prized over safety.
"Diversity's fine, but when you start talking about quotas, quota hiring, and that's what was done, that's discrimination," said Paul Mannix of Merit Matters. "It's no other name. It is discrimination. People were given a second chance at being hired solely based on the color of their skin."
The new firefighters, 35 of whom served in the Armed Forces, said that they don't expect to face resentment from fellow firefighters.
"We all have to learn together that we're all a family," said Dwayne Hill of the FDNY. "I don't think there's any type of nonsense. That's something that is spoken about maybe from outside, but in the house, we're all a family."
All of the recruits graduating went through the same 18-week training regiment, but critics still say that the priority hires are unfair. Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano has taken steps to prevent any kind of retaliation.
"I've sent people out to talk to the firefighters, the commanders," Cassano said. "It's a big department. 11,000. Will there be an instance where it might happen? Maybe. But I sent out a stern warning that it won't be tolerated."
In addition to diversifying the ranks, The Bloomberg administration takes credit for increasing fire safety over the last 12 years. There were 58 fire-related deaths in the city last year, the lowest number since record keeping began in 1916.