I have been meaning to write this letter since late July when Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled that the 1999 and 2002 written entry tests for FDNY employment discriminated against minorities (although truth be told, the number of Hispanic firefighters is increasing as they are gaining employment the old fashioned way— by earning it).
I was delayed, however, by a conundrum— how can I impart the points I want to make to all interested parties? After all, the Justice Department and the FDNY Vulcan Society have argued that written tests should not be used in hiring because reading comprehension ability is not important; how can I be sure they can understand information relayed in written form?
I decided to produce an Internet video utilizing sock puppets to make my case in a visual and verbal form, thus accounting for the late appearance of this missive. Those who value and possess reading comprehension ability can read on.
Both firefighters and the general public deserve to know what one of the core arguments presented by Justice and the Vulcans is — that because firefighters communicate verbally at the scene of a fire or emergency, it is not necessary to test a person’s reading comprehension ability. This position is so ridiculous I feel silly having to refute it, but since it was accepted by a Federal judge, I must.
While, yes, we do communicate verbally at the scene, our ability to do so safely and competently depends on having read voluminous manuals about firefighting procedures, electrical emergencies, terrorist attacks, medical emergencies and on and on. I invite the Vulcans, the judge and the Justice Department to answer this letter (or the video) and explain to me how it is possible to become proficient at firefighting in the 21st century without being able to read.
The point was made in the decision that these exams closed the doors of opportunity. No, Your Honor, they are the opportunity, but they are not a guarantee of employment. Blacks and Hispanics were placed lower on the list due to their scores as individuals, not their race. And guess what — whites who scored lower were also placed in a position on the list which meant they were not hired. To write as the judge did that the exams “unfairly excluded hundreds of qualified people of color” ignores the point that they were excluded not because they were qualified people of color but because others, including people of color, were more qualified and thus placed higher on the list.
The automatic response to the point I just made, at least by those who view people according to the group they belong to and not as individuals (no judging by the content of a person’s character for them), is that the tests are biased, and frankly, I agree. They are biased in favor of those who prepare. If I accept, however, the argument of my opponents that people should not be viewed as individuals but only as members of a group (as perverse as that is) the results of the two tests in question are validated as they conform to tests given across the country and throughout society.
The same “test-score gap” that appeared on these tests appears on the SATs, the LSATs, the MCATs and every other objective standardized test, and makes it virtually impossible to devise any test that measures mastery of a body of knowledge and cognitive expertise that will not have a disparate racial result. Why, then, must New York City firefighters and residents be forced to accept quota firefighters hired because of their race when the entrance tests given followed a pattern repeated all over the country?
The next few months should be very interesting while the city decides whether to appeal, Federal oversight of FDNY hiring is contemplated and a “remedy” which may be closer to a ruination is sought. As a Chief responsible for the safety of firefighters, I will be doing my best to influence events occurring (although I do not represent the FDNY in an official capacity in this endeavor) and urge all citizens to contact their local politician to demand equal treatment for all, special treatment for none, a vigorous appeal of this faulty decision and the maintenance of hiring standards in the FDNY.
PAUL D. MANNIX
Deputy Chief, FDNY