There has been plenty of pressure on the city over the last several years to diversify the ranks of the FDNY, with a black firefighter group filing a lawsuit and an Hispanic organization also calling for diversity. But one group has remained silent — Asians.
Ironically, they make up the smallest percentage of all minority groups in the department, but the reason they have not been more vocal about this fact remains unclear, although there are some theories.
“The Asian community traditionally has been quiet and less vocal about a lot of their issues and concerns,” said Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing). “It’s a stereotype, but there is some truth to it. Public service is not something that has been traditionally encouraged in the Asian community, especially among new immigrants.”
Meng who was born in Queens, but whose family is from China, said her father was an atypical member of the Asian community in that he promoted the idea of helping others over earning money quickly in order to support oneself and family. That’s something Meng said is usually the goal when members of the group first come to the United States.
Councilman Peter Koo (R-Flushing), a self-made businessman and native of Hong Kong, expressed similar sentiments, but he was all for the FDNY conducting more outreach in Asian communities and believes that as people struggle to find jobs, more immigrants will look to the Fire Department for employment.
“Most Asian people know the opportunity is there, but there are cultural issues,” Koo said. “Asian parents push their children to go into other occupations like doctor, engineer, businessman, or teacher — these types of jobs.”
Brett Munsey, 43, who is of Filipino descent has been with the department for five years and said he greatly enjoys his job and at no time during the testing process or his time in uniform did he ever experience racism by the FDNY or his fellow firefighters. He even has a co-worker that is of Korean decent.
“From my perspective, there is no bias toward any ethnic group,” Munsey said. “It’s open to everyone and anyone who is eligible.”
The Vulcan Society, a group of black firefighters who have long lamented a lack of diversity in the FDNY and the Justice Department, are suing the city, claiming that past FDNY entrance exams were biased, as evidenced by the small number of minorities who passed.
U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis, who is presiding over the case, has blocked the city from hiring candidates who passed the last three exams and appointed former federal prosecutor Mark Cohen as the court monitor charged with overseeing the FDNY’s hiring practices for the next decade.
Cohen decided on Dec. 27 to allow Vulcan recruiters to conduct follow-up visits with black candidates, who had not properly completed their applications — four months after the filing deadline and several weeks after the FDNY had stopped making outreach phone calls to other groups, which critics say amounts to special treatment.
Munsey, a former Navy-trained nuclear machinist, was living in Seattle when opportunity knocked. And he was not afraid to travel to open the door.
Munsey saw a notice for the FDNY test on a nationwide firefighter job listing website and decided to apply. He had to fly to New York from Seattle four times at his own expense, paying $250 three times for a round- trip ticket and $500 once when he had to leave on short notice in order to complete each part of the exam — written, physical, psychological and mental.
There were several reasons why Munsey, who has no firefighters in his family, wanted to join the ranks. During his time in the Navy from April 1991 to April 1997, stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, he was responsible for the safe operation and maintenance of a submarine’s nuclear propulsion plant and it’s associated systems — and that included addressing fires and floods. So, he said there was a correlation between the two jobs.
Also, when he went to his 10th high school reunion in Alaska, he learned that some of his former schoolmates had become firefighters and that peaked his interest.
“I like to help people and I wanted to do more to affect people’s lives in a positive way,” Munsey said.
Munsey, who is a member of Merit Mattters, a group that opposes race-based hiring, is trying to create a fraternal group for Asian firefighters similar to the Emerald Society, the FDNY Hispanic Society and the Vulcan Society, since one does not exist.
He has obtained a list of names through Merit Matters of the 100 to 150 firefighters presently with the department who identified themselves as Asian on their applications to see if they would be interested in being a part of the group.
So far, the idea is in the exploratory stages, Munsey said, but he added that two Asians have already expressed interest in participating.
Munsey said he has no idea why there aren’t more Asians on the force. “That’s something I don’t know. It might be partially a lack of interest. It might be a cultural thing. I can’t say for sure.”
But as far as the Vulcans being granted permission to do special door-to-door outreach, Munsey was not pleased.
“It’s amazing to me that people know that there is an opening, through the campaigning and media advertisement, and they don’t make the effort to apply or they have to be led by the hand to complete the application,” he said.
Munsey got a 98 percent on the written exam and 100 percent on the physical exam. He works at Ladder 163 in Woodside. Due to his time in the Navy, he was able to waive six years from the the maximum age to apply, which is 29. He did not get any of the points allotted to veterans because he was not a resident of New York.
“It’s the greatest job in the world,” he said. “I work with a great group of guys. It was all worth it to me.”
Munsey called the Vulcan’s case “preposterous” and said he is “shocked at what’s being proposed.” He also added, “There might be some resentment, but not any backlash. But there will be people who won’t necessarily be happy.”
Asked what he thinks of Garaufis and the decisions he’s made regarding the case, Munsey said, “He wants to enforce some kind of insane type of hiring quotas on the department. People who want the job, take the job when its offered.”
Meng said she was unsure whether the FDNY was biased, adding, “If there is some sort of pattern that shows that there is not equal access for everyone then that needs to be looked at and the policies need to be re-examined.”
Kenny Chan, 31, has been a firefighter with Engine 324 in Corona for three and a half years. He is a native of Hong Kong, but his family immigrated to the United States when he was two years old.
He is angry that black candidates are getting what he believes amounts to special treatment, when he and others like him had to study hard to pass the exam. Chan took classes, prepared thoroughly and built up his physical strength.
“It’s like everything I worked for means nothing,” said Chan, who is also a member of Merit Matters.“Why should someone get hired ahead of someone else because of their race? It should be based on who has the higher score on the exam.”
Chan became interested in becoming a firefighter after a friend of his father told him about the job, but no one in his family is a member of the FDNY.
“Anyone can get the job,” he said. “It’s an open, competitive exam. It boggles the mind how people can complain that it’s biased.”