An estimated 200 firefighters protested anti-discrimination orders imposed on the FDNY outside Brooklyn federal court Monday as a judge heard sharp criticism of hiring preferences for minorities who had been refused jobs in the past.
"It's an insult to me and my fellow firefighters," Lt. James Byrnes, a 35-year FDNY veteran from Merrick, told U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis. " . . . I also believe it imperils the safety of the citizens of New York."
Byrnes was one of about three dozen speakers on the first day of so-called "fairness hearings" that Garaufis is conducting on his plans for compensating minority applicants who did not get hired after taking one of two tests from 2001 to 2007 that he later found discriminatory.
The judge in March ordered back pay of up to $128 million for the unsuccessful minority test takers, and priority hiring with retroactive seniority for 293 of the disappointed applicants. The order was just one aspect of broader rulings to reshape the 90-percent white department that have included a new test and a court-appointed monitor to oversee hiring practices.
More than 700 have asked to speak at hearings, scheduled to last until Thursday. Only 36 of 180 scheduled speakers showed up for 2-minute speeches to the judge Monday. But their comments and the turnout of 200 mostly white firefighters for a rally outside sponsored by Merit Matters, a group opposed to the judge's rulings, highlighted tensions inside the FDNY.
"The idea that the court can't figure out the degree of resentment this will breed is mind-boggling," Lt. Peter Bradley of upstate Congers said.
"I need to know I can trust those I work with," firefighter Matthew Bland, of Wantagh, complained. "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Do not allow the chain that is the FDNY to be weakened with links that have not been forged properly."
"By compromising on standards and dumbing down mental and physical examinations, you are putting lives at stake," Lt. James Grismer, of Walden, told the judge.
But lawyers and officials of the Vulcan Society, the black firefighters group that pressed the anti-discrimination suit, said that most of the complaints were based on misconception.
The 293 minority applicants from previous tests who get a hiring preference will still have to pass the new test given this year to get job offers, they said. And retroactive seniority will not exempt firefighters seeking promotions to officer rank from working the minimum number of years before applying. "For people to complain that applicants who are unqualified are going to get these jobs, that people who don't deserve it are going to get these jobs, is just wrong," lawyer Darius Charney said.