Fire officials say only offensive decals, photos are targeted in FDNY locker-room upset

By Emi Endo
Newsday (New York)
Copyright 2007 Newsday, Inc.

NEW YORK, N.Y. — A city firefighters union yesterday criticized the Fire Department for treating its members "like unruly high school students" by enforcing a rule against decorating firehouse lockers.

"We're tired of being treated like children," said Steve Cassidy, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, at a news conference yesterday morning on the steps of City Hall. Cassidy said the ban includes American flags or funeral prayer cards for firefighters killed in the line of duty.

Department officials said they were concerned only with getting rid of anything sexist, racist or otherwise offensive.

Mylan Denerstein, the deputy commissioner for legal affairs, called the union's public outcry "disingenuous" because the administration told union leaders at a contract negotiation meeting last week they would not require U.S. flags or prayer cards to be removed.

Cassidy said that was "absolutely not true" and that department superiors began scraping personal items such as flags off lockers two weeks ago.

If the administration wished to modify its regulation, Cassidy asked, "Why don't they put whatever changes they're making in writing?"

The rule is black and white: Lockers must be "free of all material," according to the regulation. But the administration said it would use discretion in enforcement, refusing to say whether other kinds of items - such as family photographs or other kinds of flags - would be permitted. Violators are handled on a case-by-case basis, according to the department.

Cassidy and union attorney Ronald Kuby said they were considering going to court over the policy, which they called unconstitutional. The policy has been on the books for 18 months but only recently enforced.

"The citizenry trusts the judgment of firefighters to make life and death decisions every day, but the department does not trust its firefighters with the simple task of maintaining a locker," Kuby wrote in a letter to Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta dated Tuesday.

The union plans to distribute 10,000 U.S. flag decals to members today and encourage them to put them on their lockers.

The department says a firehouse is a workplace like any other that must abide by federal anti-discrimination laws. While the union acknowledges it is a workplace, Cassidy said a locker is the closest thing a firefighter has to a desk and is "a firefighter's private space in a firehouse."

Last November, the superior officers union urged its members to remove any "inappropriate" materials from the walls, tables or bathrooms in anticipation of regular inspections to ensure the department is complying with equal employment opportunity laws.

Recent inspections have resulted in items being confiscated and the superior officers being held responsible, according to a note written in November by Capt. Peter L. Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.

In 2005, four supervisors were penalized for failing to prevent the sexual harassment of a female firefighter at a firehouse in Woodside. The harassment reportedly included the open display of pictures of nude women.

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