03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Making New York's Fire Department Look Like New York

A bill now before the City Council is another sign of the continuing challenge New York City faces to increase the number of blacks and Hispanics in its fire department.

Last summer a federal judge ruled that the city used qualifying exams that discriminated against black and Hispanic applicants to the fire department and that had little relation to one's ability to do the job. The city is awaiting Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis decision on what remedies to impose on the city.

With roughly three percent of its uniformed firefighters identified as black and roughly 6 percent as Hispanics as of last May, as reported by the New York Times, New York has one of the lowest representations of minorities on its firefighting force of any major city. Based on those estimates, of the city's 11,529 firefighters at that time, only about 345 were black and 691 Hispanic. The numbers are even more dramatic when one considers that more than half the city's population is black and Hispanic.

Yet despite lawsuits and recruitment efforts conducted by fire department officials over the years, the representation of minorities in these jobs how remained consistently low.

In November City Councilman Leroy Comrie of Queens introduced a bill in the City Council that would add eight bonus points to the test scores of any fire department applicant who has a diploma from a New York City high school, or its equivalent. Since the majority of public high school students are black and Hispanic, Comrie believes the bonus would increase their representation on the force and encourage minority students who are looking for a career to think of the Fire Department. The bill, which has been the subject of one City Council committee hearing, but was not voted on, will be re-introduced this session, Comrie said. It has the support of the Vulcan Society, the black firefighters organization, and several other black and Hispanic groups.

The city already awards a five-point bonus on the fire department exam to applicants who are New York City residents, and to the children of firefighters who perished in the line of duty. But critics say the residency bonus is routinely abused by people who live outside the city, but falsely claim a city address. They get away with it because the fire department doesn't have the resources to investigate if applicants really live where they say they do. Comrie says checking with a high school to see if an applicant actually graduated from there would be much easier.

Comrie's graduation bonus sounds as reasonable to me as the residency and legacy bonuses and could be another tool for the city officials to use to correct the lopsided ratio of white firefighters to others in a city where whites are not in the majority. The city's Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), which administers all exams for city jobs, opposes Comrie's bill, but only on the ground that it, and not the City Council, has the authority to set the qualifications for city jobs. Since DCAS adopted the residency and legacy bonuses for the fire department, it could create a bonuses for city high school graduates as well.

Last summer's court ruling only applies to fire department tests that were given in 1999 and 2002, and Fire Department spokespersons say that stepped-up recruiting efforts since then as well as its most recent exam, in 2007, have resulted in a much higher yield of minority hires. Its last class of probationary firefighters, which graduated in 2008, resulted in 286 hires, of which a third were minorities -- 64 Hispanics, 32 blacks, and 4 Asians.

That sounds like real progress. But with a force of almost 12,000 firefighters, the city has a long way to go to achieve a semblance of diversity. Creating an exam that is truly job-related is imperative. But a city high school graduation bonus couldn't hurt.