“Firefighters do not run into burning buildings,” says New York City Fire Captain Paul Washington. Of course they don’t! Firefighters rescue kittens from trees. If you doubt it, just ask the hundreds of FDNY widows and orphans from 9/11. But Captain Washington is an affirmative-action recruiter, so his eye-popping assertion needs to be put in its proper context. It came in the service of a program founded on a falsehood and perpetuated by lies.

No one took Washington at his word when he spun this yarn at the Borough of Manhattan Community College recently. His audience, a group of potential firefighters, laughed nervously at his absurd remark. Of course, firefighters “run into burning buildings” virtually every day. Why else would they be on the scene, if not for the fire, and how else would they put it out, if not from inside?

In fact, the FDNY may be the world’s premier urban “inside department”—a term of art for a tradition that seeks to extinguish each building fire in the room where it started. There’s no better way to save lives and preserve property than to go to the source, quick and hard, though the ethic does exact a price.

While 9/11 was the worst day for fire services in American history, it was an outlier event—most firefighter losses come in ones and twos, though on occasion catastrophe strikes. So while New York City firefighters almost always arrive home safely after a shift—the key word being “almost”—Washington’s deception does a disservice, by clouding this compelling reality: each and every burning building is a potential death trap. This is true every day, at every alarm, because inattention to even the most innocuous detail can cascade into calamity. If Washington needs to bamboozle recruits on this point, perhaps they shouldn’t be firefighters.

From New York City’s point of view, the goal should be to recruit superlative candidates; from Washington’s, it’s to recruit minority candidates. History teaches that those goals are not always compatible. Here’s where the affirmative-action lie comes into focus. Hiring in the civil service has long been done through competitive examination—tests designed to determine whether applicants are qualified for the jobs they seek. Unsuccessful aspirants often claimed that the exams tested for skills unrelated to the job and thus constituted illegal racial or gender discrimination. Courts tended to be sympathetic, and judges deemed test after test insufficiently job-specific.

So the tests were redesigned, becoming hyper-relevant to actual working conditions—yet minority applicants continued to fail in disproportionate numbers. At this point, judicial intervention entered the realm of the fantastic. In a 1982 sex-discrimination case, the late federal judge Charles Sifton effectively found speed and physical strength to be irrelevant in firefighting. “What must be identified are not those who are strongest or fastest, but instead those who, with the benefit of training . . . can perform the punishing tasks of firefighting.” That is, don’t hire the best now—hire those who perhaps can be trained to the task someday, irrespective of the intervening risk. And, given civil service and union protections, even completely unsatisfactory candidates, once hired, were impossible to fire.

How many lives might be lost during Sifton’s training process didn’t enter into the judge’s calculations. He ordered the FDNY to hire 45 women—among the first of the department’s judicially ordered hiring quotas. By 2012, all pretense of honesty and objectivity had been abandoned. Federal judge Nicholas Garaufis ordered the department to adopt an unambiguous quota-hiring system—finding that overt discrimination did not need to be proved because a test’s “disparate impact” on minority-group members is sufficient evidence of bias.

Garaufis, whose own biases at one point caused him to be removed by an appellate court from the fact-finding aspect of the case, nevertheless retained standing to declare the FDNY “a stubborn bastion of white male privilege.” He ordered that two of every five new city firefighters be black and one of every five be Hispanic. The jurist also ordered the FDNY to pay $129 million in retroactive salary and benefits to unsuccessful black and Hispanic recruits.

The results of all this quota-setting and bean-counting were predictable. FDNY insiders say that the department struggles to fill the minority quotas despite degraded hiring standards. Hence Paul Washington dissembles to potential recruits. Hence standards for women have grown so lax under Sifton’s dictum that one female recruit failed entrance exams six times and was hired anyway. Hence nine felons—each a beneficiary of Garafulis’s quotas—graduated in a class of probationary firefighters from the city’s fire academy last November.

Of all the bad ideas attending the FDNY’s recruiting practices, the hiring of felons stands at the top of the list. Belief in redemption is an admirable American trait, but it shouldn’t be presumed that character weaknesses that led to the original crimes and convictions won’t resurface in the billowing black smoke and white-hot flame of a high-rise fire. Pretending otherwise is a falsehood that dwarfs Paul Washington’s little fib. But they’re both lies—just like affirmative-action quota hiring itself.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images


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