FDNY Lt. George Ricco Diaz, president of the FDNY Hispanic Society, attributes the day he decided to join the department to “divine intervention.”
In 1981, he was working as a data entry technician for the Social Security Administration, when he got into an argument with his boss who scolded him for bypassing red tape in order to help clients more quickly. “He told me I had too much energy for the job,” Diaz recalled. “He said I should look for another job.”
Later that day he saw an FDNY recruitment ad in The Chief newspaper and took the test the following year. He said he scored 99 percent on the written test and 100 percent on the physical exam, joining the department in 1984.
Diaz, of Tower Ladder 50 in the Bronx, said he was in the same probationary class as Paul Washington, former president of the Vulcan Society, the group of African-American firefighters who have consistently lamented diversity in the FDNY and along with the Justice Department launched the bias lawsuit challenging the way candidates are hired.
The Hispanic Society decided not to join the litigation, because, Diaz said, the group does not agree with the Vulcan’s view that the entrance exams are inherently biased because the number of white candidates who pass far outnumbers that of minorities.
“The FDNY is not racist,” Diaz said. “There is favoritism. There is tradition. People who do well and show initiative are rewarded. For every negative, you can find a positive.”
However, Diaz does not attribute the problem to discrimination on the part of the department. He said there are plenty of other issues that have led to a lack of minority applicants and he thinks that the lawsuit is only serving to show the FDNY in a negative light and deter more people from signing up.
“Yes, diversity is a problem,” Diaz said. “Kudos to the Vulcan Society for bringing this issue to light after its been overlooked for so long. Shame on the FDNY for not addressing it sooner.”
In January 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled that written exams administered to FDNY applicants in 1999 and 2002 are invalid due to racial bias, as evidenced by the few minorities who passed.
“That’s crazy,” Diaz said. “I don’t understand how they can say that when there are so many contributing factors, such as education and desire, to take into account.”
In August 2010, Garaufis also ruled that the 2007 test is biased, and ordered a hiring freeze, unless the city followed certain hiring procedures that he had outlined, which many people believed were just glorified hiring quotas.
Diaz said that intimating the exam has to be “dumbed down or watered down” in order for minorities to pass is an “insult.”
Former federal prosecutor Mark Cohen was appointed as court monitor last week, a position created by Garaufis who deemed it necessary for someone to oversee FDNY hiring practices including recruitment, applicant screenings and discrimination complaints for the next decade.
The Fire Department is 89 percent Caucasian, 6 percent Hispanic and 3 percent black, according to Frank Dwyer, a spokesman for the FDNY. Some 31,014, or 51 percent of the 61,439 people who registered to take the next exam are Caucasian.
Diaz said part of the problem is recruitment, which he believes is the key to maintaining a level playing field. It’s not sufficient for the FDNY to give out more applications and reach out to more people, he said.
The recruiters themselves must be passionate in order to yield good results. Diaz likened it to farmers planting seeds. If they are not placed in the right soil and nurtured, then crops are not going to grow.
Some 14,122 blacks have applied for next year’s exam, according to the department, compared to 5,628 in 2007, and 14,110 Hispanics, compared to 5,590 for that same year. More than three times as many women applied this year as did in 2007 — 4,261 compared to 1,401, according to the FDNY.
Another problem, according to Diaz, is checking the validity of the residency credit. Applicants who live in New York City are given five extra points on the entrance exam, but Diaz said, the FDNY does not have the resources to check every claim, allowing some people to skirt the system by listing the address of a friend or relative who lives here and having their bills sent to that dwelling.
Also, Diaz criticized the way the FDNY conducts candidate investigations, sometimes overlooking those who live in “bad neighborhoods,” and failing to conduct interviews there. He hopes the appointment of special master, Mary Jo White, will help correct some of those problems.
One person who is against what he has called “forced diversity” is Paul Mannix, an FDNY deputy chief with Division 6 in the Bronx and the founder of Merit Matters, an advocacy group “dedicated to preserving merit in the FDNY testing, hiring and promotion process.”
Diaz agrees with some of Mannix’s ideas including the belief that candidates must study, prepare, and truly dedicate themselves to the task in order to pass the exam, but stopped short of aligning himself with the group. Diaz noted that he teaches tutoring classes as part of his work with the Hispanic Society to get more applicants to “develop the skills to pass the four-hour exam.”
Although the new exam is being designed with the help of the Vulcan Society and others, some fear that if it does not produce enough passing minority applicants, Garaufis will scrap the exam as he has done in the past and the process will start all over again.
If that were to happen, Diaz said it would amount to reverse discrimination and prove the judge has an agenda, “to get more blacks on the job, by any means necessary.”