(WTNH)– Few jobs hold the esteem of being a New York City firefighter, respected and loved for their bravery in the face of danger. But it’s been a struggle for African Americans to join the ranks of the city’s bravest.
‘Firefight’ tells the story of trail-blazers like Wesley Williams, one of the first African Americans to joins the ranks of New York’s bravest, and other black firefighters who struggled in those early years to gain acceptance and why their perseverance was so important.
“There’s been a family dynamic in one of the black firefighters that I feature in “Firefight” and you can see how that has pushed the whole family forward out of real extreme poverty of his father during World War II, who was just one and a half generations up from the Jim Crow south. This generation that got into the job has really escalated,” said Ginger Adams-Otis.
But as “Firefight” author Ginger Adams-Otis explains, the century-long fight to integrate the department has been a difficult one.
“In every step of the way, lots of people were getting washed out, for a lot of reasons, but blacks proportionately were always getting washed out,” said Adams-Otis.
For decades, New York’s bravest remained virtually entirely white and male, even as other city departments like the NYPD and Corrections department were able to add significant numbers of minorities. A fraternal society of black firefighters “The Vulcans” long argued that a key written exam needed to join the fire department had little to do with who would ultimately become a successful firefighter.
“The bottom line, and that is what came out in the lawsuit, but it’s a good analogy, the way the tests for fighter would be the equivalent of the Yankees giving an S-A-T test to decide who was going to play shortstop,” said Adams-Otis.
Despite a great deal of push back from City Hall and department brass, The Vulcans fight to change the hiring system went to did go to federal court where they prevailed.
Adams-Otis also writes about the importance of the department looking more like the neighborhoods they serve.
“The sheer, like tremendous boost it could give to somebody helps the whole community, on top of the fact that’s it’s a visible job, it’s a high profile job, there’s a lot of prestige that comes with that,” said Adams-Otis.
But ultimately for anyone trapped in a fire, it’s not about race or gender it’s all about performance.
“Anybody knows in an emergency you wouldn’t care if any alien that comes down to get you,” said Adams-Otis.
The New York City fire department only hires new recruits every four years. In some cases, 30,000 applicants can apply for only two or three thousand open positions.