Photos: Head of Black FDNY legacy family retiring after four decades of fighting fires
“I just can’t believe that 40 years went by so quickly,” said Firefighter Robert Thomas, whose three sons are in the service
By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — The patriarch of one of the FDNY’s largest Black legacy families is calling it a career.
Firefighter Robert Thomas will be marking his last tour at Engine Co. 205 in Brooklyn Heights on Monday when he reaches 65, the department’s mandatory retirement age.
“I wanted to make sure I gave them everything I could,” Thomas joked. “It’s been an incredible experience. I just can’t believe that 40 years went by so quickly.”
But the Bravest never leave the Fire Department, especially if they have family members still on the job. Thomas’ three sons, all Brooklyn firefighters, will be keeping him abreast of what’s happening.
They’ll also be riding in the firetruck with him on his last tour.
“He really loves [being a firefighter],” his eldest son Jason Thomas, 32, told the Daily News. “He’s definitely going to miss it. That’s for sure.”
Thomas took the test for the FDNY in 1982. When he got accepted, he first turned it down, deciding instead to take a job with an insurance company on Wall Street, the Brownsville native remembered.
But members of the Vulcan Society, a fraternal group of Black firefighters, encouraged him to join the academy — and he’s never looked back, he said.
“It’s been an incredible career,” he said. “I’m more than thankful for the FDNY and what they have done for me and my family.
“I had no idea what I was turning down the first time, but I know I wouldn’t do it again!” he joked.
But being a Black New York City firefighter in the 1980s, when the FDNY was almost exclusively white, wasn’t easy.
“It was tough coming in from Brownsville to the Fire Department, it was a completely different culture,” he told the Daily News in a 2020 interview. “It was a challenge going in, but I think I changed a lot of hearts and minds by doing the job and they helped me become a better firefighter. A level of respect grew between us.”
The number of Blacks in the FDNY never rose above 650 in a force of about 11,000 until about 2002, when the Vulcan Society filed a landmark lawsuit charging that Blacks and Latinos were subjected to disparate treatment in the almost all-male and predominantly white department.
The case was finally settled in 2014, sparking landmark revisions in the department’s recruitment and testing procedures.
The changes have had some positive results with more women and people of color applying for FDNY firefighter jobs, although they are still underrepresented in the department.
As of October, the FDNY had 881 Black firefighters, making up about 10% of the department — out of proportion with the city’s population, which according to the Census Bureau is about 23% Black. There were 1,417 Hispanic firefighters, making up roughly 17% of the city’s firefighting force. About 30% of the city’s population is Hispanic.
Nearly 70% of FDNY firefighters are white, city officials said. The city’s population is about 40% white.
Thomas helped diversify the ranks, although he didn’t intend to: He was over the moon when, all on their own, his sons Jason and Nathan both joined the department in 2014 and trained in the academy together. His third son Stephen, a Navy veteran, became an FDNY firefighter in 2019.
Thomas and his sons now join a growing tradition which started in the 1960s with the Hargetts and the Tylers: Black multigenerational legacy families where grandfather, father and son all wore department patches.
With his last few hours on duty dwindling, memories of the fires he ran on over the years — and all the close calls — washed over him.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a hero, but I know there were times when I almost didn’t make it out of there,” Roberts said about the blazes he fought and the sacrifices his co-workers have made. “The alarm goes off and no one is thinking about their career or their future. All they’re focusing on is the needs of the person they’ve come to help.”
His sons and the firefighters responding to alarms in the years to come share that same intensity and focus, he said.
“[The young firefighters] listen to what you have to say,” he said. “All the experiences we had, we’re passing it along to them and they’re taking it all in. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”
Thomas may be leaving the department, but he’s not going to retire. He’ll be dedicating all of his free time on a special passion project.
He’s created Smart Choice Parent, a special community program that will both provide underserved parents with resources that will allow them to take better care of their children.
At the same time, Thomas’ organization will encourage children to pursue careers in sports fitness, nutritional science and the culinary arts.
“You only have one life and you should use it to help someone else,” he said. “You should pass what you can to the next generation.”