As the FDNY prepares to roll out its diversity trainings to nearly 11,000 rank-and-file members, two of its key fraternal organizations—the black and women’s groups—say they were denied any meaningful input into the process.
No Real Input
Vulcan Society of Black Firefighters President Regina Wilson and United Women Firefighters President Sarinya Srisakul told THE CHIEF-LEADER that they had to push repeatedly to be included in focus groups, weren’t given real input on content, and didn’t see the content until Oct. 13, though it had been in development for months. By then, the Chiefs had already begun their sessions, which were due to be introduced to the rank-and-file just three weeks later.
The department and Kaleidoscope, the private-consulting firm that developed the trainings, insisted in a joint statement that they’d included the two groups’ views. Since May, they had four meetings or calls—together or separately—with the Vulcans and the UWF before the Oct. 13 screening, they said, including focus groups, guided discussions, and “personal coaching” conference calls.
The diversity trainings are meant to help smooth the way as people of color, women and other groups enter the firehouse in greater numbers. Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro, speaking to reporters on Oct. 7, described them as part of an attempt to not just include such members, but to welcome them.
During one part of the sessions—which last four hours for Firefighters and eight for officers—trainers present a common firehouse scenario and participants discuss the right course of action. In one example, a Latino firefighter is the only member of a company not invited to a colleague’s wedding.
The trainings come at a key moment in FDNY history. The firefighting force was at least 90 percent white and male for nearly 150 years, but has begun graduating far-more-diverse classes in the last two years, since a Federal Judge in 2010 first found its old hiring practices discriminatory toward blacks and Latinos. He ordered the Firefighter entrance exam revamped and mandated several dozen priority hires.
The department vastly stepped up recruiting. In the last year, it hired a new Chief of Training and other top officials; it also appointed a court-ordered diversity and inclusion officer. The trainings have been in the works for at least a couple of years.
To Ms. Wilson, the Vulcan Society’s role in producing the changes in the department should afford it a greater role in implementing them—and making sure they stick. The group spent years building the movement that led to the U.S. Justice Department’s 2007 discrimination suit, then later joined as a plaintiff.
“We are the ones who are on the ground getting the work done,” she said, later noting that her board fields concerns every week from members about firehouse incidents. Even those hesitant to go through official channels discuss their cases with the Vulcans.
“It was just crazy to me that every step of the way, the affinity groups, especially the Vulcan Society, had to fight to be included in putting the diversity training together,” Ms. Wilson said.
Women’s Input ‘Limited’
Ms. Srisakul agreed. “We have consistently asked to have input ever since we heard of Kaleidoscope, but the input was limited,” she said.
The two were told the department was choosing random firefighters for focus groups in order to get a wider spectrum of viewpoints, they recalled. They claim that when they sought the content of the trainings as they were being developed, they were told it was the intellectual property of Kaleidoscope.
The Fire Department and the consultant painted a different picture.
“There was always the intention and commitment to include the valuable perspective and viewpoints of the FDNY affinity groups,” they said, later adding that they’d always planned for them to be present at the Oct. 13 pilot program. After the screening, they sought feedback from all participants.
Kaleidoscope has spent more than 20 years conducting diversity programs, working with other city agencies and the Chicago Fire Department. The firm said it seeks the views of minority and majority groups as well as contrary views. Such perspectives “actually serve as a great platform to ensure a comprehensive program that meets everyone’s needs,” they said.
Asked whether the affinity groups had to push for a spot in focus groups, the company added, “Kaleidoscope’s design process includes understanding the organization’s mission and culture through a comprehensive review of data and gathering qualitative input from a cross section of employees of all backgrounds to develop the most relevant training program and experience.”
The company “is confident that the process used for FDNY was inclusive of all stakeholders with best-practice standards,” they added.
Jorge Luis Torres, the president of the Hispanic Society, said he didn’t seek details about the content of the trainings ahead of time, believing that the sessions were more effective when you came into them fresh.
“We have no complaints” about the trainings, he said. “We didn’t feel that we were excluded at all. We were sent e-mails; we were in touch with everybody.”
Diversity Head’s Demise
But the objections by the other fraternal-group leaders aren’t the only recent jabs at the FDNY’s diversity efforts. John Coombs, Ms. Wilson’s predecessor as Vulcan president, charged in an interview that the Vulcans should have been “included in the conversation” a year ago, when the department hired Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Pamela Lassiter. A diversity and Equal Employment Opportunity specialist with more than 25 years’ experience in the public and private sectors, Ms. Lassiter was ousted earlier this month.
She and the Vulcans reportedly clashed, and she even filed an assault complaint internally against Mr. Coombs for allegedly threatening her at a large Martin Luther King Day gathering last January, the firefighter said. Mr. Coombs last week denied the charge, and said that it remained unsubstantiated after a department investigation.
The FDNY declined to comment on a personnel issue. THE CHIEF-LEADER was unable to locate Ms. Lassiter for a response.
Mr. Coombs said he didn’t expect to control the hiring process.
Danger of Not Talking
“No one’s coming into the firehouse telling me how to put a fire out,” he said. “I get it. I’m not an attorney.”
But the group that had fought for decades for change should have at least been asked what it thought was important in a candidate, he said—and perhaps asked for candidate suggestions.
“If you’re not going to talk to the people whom the damage was done against, you’re going to repeat past mistakes,” he said.