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The FDNY has been threatened with yet another racial discrimination lawsuit, this time from the National Association of Hispanic Firefighters, which is alleging that the department hasn’t done enough to diversify its ranks. It’s also pushing for the removal of Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh.
The group’s president, Manuel Fonseca, who interviewed for the commissioner’s post last year but ultimately praised Kavanagh’s appointment, said in an open letter sent to Mayor Eric Adams earlier this month that the organization would be moving forward with their lawsuit because of Kavanagh’s “neglect and lack of effort for Hispanic FDNY Members and other minorities.”
Fonseca’s Feb. 17 letter noted that he was disappointed by the lack of promotions of Hispanics into decision-making positions at the FDNY, and views a recent mutiny among high-ranking officers as emblematic of Kavanagh’s flawed leadership capabilities. At least six chiefs have requested demotions from their positions in recent weeks after Kavanagh demoted three others without consulting her top two uniformed officials.
At the center of these demotions was Kavanagh’s recently installed chief of staff, Luis Martinez, one of the highest-ranking Hispanics in the FDNY, who was given the task of notifying the three chiefs that they would be demoted. Martinez is a source of frustration for Fonseca as well, and in his letter the national association’s leader said that Martinez’s appointment in January was a sign of Kavanagh’s “poor judgment.”
‘I would not have approved it’
The FDNY’s Hispanic Society, however, does not support the advertised lawsuit or the manner that Fonseca has chosen to make his claims public, which in turn threatens a rift between the two groups. The Hispanic Society’s president, Jose Prosper, said he never even saw Fonseca’s letter before it was released. “I would not have approved it if I had seen it,” said Prosper, who also told The Chief that Fonseca’s move put the FDNY’s Hispanic Society in a difficult position and “made us look like we were obsolete.”
Prosper said he and The Hispanic Society's board share much of the frustration that Fonseca expressed in the letter but Prosper disagrees with Fonseca’s methods. “He's right for feeling the way he feels but he's wrong in the way he's going about doing it,” Prosper said.
Fonseca’s decision to send in the letter and move forward with his suit without support from the Hispanic Society “is going to create a lot more animosity between our groups.” Prosper said. “Now we’re just stuck wasting time arguing with each other.”
Prosper, who’s been in the FDNY for almost 30 years, also said that Fonseca’s letter makes it seem as though he is angrier about not being selected as commissioner of the FDNY than he is about discrimination within the department. “It just seems like it’s everyone’s personal agenda,” Prosper said. “My only mission is to see the progression and promotion of Latinos in the FDNY.”
The FDNY Hispanic Society, founded in 1962, released its own memo on Feb. 20 recusing the organization from Fonseca’s letter, and expressing support for keeping Kavanagh in her role. “We are committed to working with your administration and to supporting the implementation of proposed diversity and inclusion goals and policies,” the memo reads.
In his letter, Fonseca questioned why Kavanagh would appoint Martinez as her chief of staff instead of promoting a Hispanic member with more experience within the FDNY. Martinez was a uniformed member of the NYPD for 18 years, leaving a year ago as a lieutenant to join the FDNY as a special advisor, according to his LinkedIn page.
Kavanagh often cites her appointment of Martinez when giving examples of her commitment to diversity, along with the fact that she has hired the first-ever black chief of EMS and the FDNY’s first black female executive officer. FDNY’s spokesperson Frank Dwyer pointed to these three officials as examples of diverse hiring practices. “The Commissioner’s focus on diversifying the department has been successful,” he said in an email in response to a request for comment on Fonseca’s letter.
The mayor has been putting Kavanagh under heavy pressure to diversify the disproportionately white and male department and last fall Adams signed a package of five bills aimed at the FDNY, legislation cheered by Kavanagh and several organizations representing minorities in the FDNY. Kavanagh also appointed Kwame Cooper, a black man, as the FDNY’s chief diversity and inclusion officer in September.
But since Kavanagh sent Martinez to demote the three chiefs without consulting Chief of Department John Hodgens and Chief of Fire Operations John Esposito, both the commissioner's brand of leadership and her commitment to diversity have come under question, with the revolt of the six chiefs and the threatened suit from the National Association of Hispanic Firefighters hinting at a crisis.
An active longtime member of the FDNY said that Kavanagh’s decision to have Martinez tell the three chiefs they would be demoted, “rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”
“She managed that situation incorrectly,” the FDNY member said.
‘Just for political clout’
Compounding Fonseca’s frustrations, the same day that he sent his open letter, Kavanagh replaced the highest-ranking Hispanic member of the FDNY with Joseph Pheifer, a white 37-year veteran of the department who came out of retirement. As first deputy commissioner, Lizzette Christoff was the second-highest ranking civilian in the FDNY, and she’ll now return to her position as deputy commissioner of budget and finance.
Prosper had harsh words for Kavanagh’s demotion of Christoff. “Why would she appoint Lizette, say that you have diversity and then kick her out of her position?” Prosper asked. “It was just for political clout,” he added.
With Christoff demoted, Martinez is now one of the FDNY’s most influential Hispanic members despite holding his position for just over a month. That’s drawn the ire of longtime chiefs for his role in the recent demotions given his inexperience with the FDNY’s hierarchy, culture and protocols. The chief of staff under former Commissioner Daniel Nigro, Elizabeth Cascio, had more than 30 years of experience in the FDNY before reaching that position.
"Commissioner Kavanagh has my full support,” Adams said in a statement in response to Fonseca’s letter. “She is promoting a culture of true leadership, accountability, and performance within the FDNY and remains committed to diversifying the ranks within the department. New Yorkers can rest assured that, under Commissioner Kavanagh’s leadership, the FDNY is as prepared as ever to keep them safe and respond to any and all emergencies.”
‘They don’t want to work with us’
Fonseca is not dissuaded by the lack of support from the FDNY Hispanic Society and intends to move forward with the suit. “They deal with other issues that don’t coincide with what we want to do,” he said in reference to Prosper’s organization.
Fonseca has not always been critical of Kavanagh, applauding her permanent appointment to the post in October. “Her appointment signifies the beginning of a transformational change in the culture of the fire service,” he said in a statement at the time. “Moreover, it sends a clear message that the fire service will continue to strive to increase inclusion, diversity, equity, acceptance, and leadership in its recruiting and promotional processes. We congratulate both Mayor Adams and Fire Commissioner Kavanagh.”
He’s turned critic since then. Fonseca told The Chief that now is the best time to move forward with his suit since, he said, Kavanagh has not put forth any diversity proposals, has not consulted with his organization about diversity in the FDNY and because of the “ongoing and dangerous mutiny at FDNY.”
“Nothing has happened since [Kavanagh] has come in and they don’t want to work with us to fix this problem,” Fonseca said. As for diversity legislation signed by Adams and supported by Kavanagh, Fonseca says they were “a great step but they have no teeth.”
“These bills give us data but they already know that [discrimination against Hispanics] is a problem,” he said. “Why are they waiting for a lawsuit to move when they can change things today?”
If he follows through with its suit, it would be the fifth such action the FDNY has faced in the last 20 or so years. First, the FDNY’s Vulcans, a fraternal order of Black firefighters, successfully sued the FDNY over racial discrimination, winning a large settlement and forcing the FDNY to update its entrance exam. In the decade since that suit was settled, the FDNY’s civilian employees, EMS workers and fire inspectors have all filed suits alleging racial discrimination.
“It's up to the mayor and his team to decide if they want to go through lawsuits or solve this problem because they’ve forced our hand,” Fonseca said. “The decision is theirs.”
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Take it from someone who has worked there, the FDNY is praised as hero's by what the media shows us but inside it's a discriminatory spectacle. Prejudice, bigotry and racism is alive and kicking in the NYC Fire Department - in BOTH directions. The Bureau of Fire Prevention is predominately black and with a few other minority groups. You'll be lucky to find a handful of white Inspectors in that prejudice department of 800 Inspectors. Just look at the recent promotions ceremony. Over 50 people promoted which only 3 were white. During the pre union / pre-vaccine Covid layoffs after Deblasio budget cuts, that unit fired ONLY white Inspectors. And those five bills signed November 28, 2022 - HAAA. Wasn't that a joke. I reached out to 10 top ranking officials in both the FDNY and city Counsil including the Fire Commissioner herself and Mayor Adams and no one got back to me. Don't let the smiling faces, hugs and handshakes fool you. NYC civil service bases it hiring practices on ethnic background and age. College, experience and hard work are far behind us and ended in the 1990's.
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