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FDNY aims to curb ‘frat-like’ culture by standardizing punishment for discrimination, misconduct

Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh’s initiatives take cues from NYPD in reporting responsibilities and disciplinary action


Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh wants to create a disciplinary matrix that will officially clarify punishments for different offenses within the department.

Theodore Parisienne

By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — The FDNY wants to level the playing field for firefighters and officers accused of discrimination, harassment and misconduct — and they are taking cues from the NYPD to do it.

Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh wants to create a “disciplinary matrix” that will clarify punishments for different offenses within the department as well as “communicate both reporting responsibilities and disciplinary outcomes to members of service,” the department said.

The FDNY will also be creating FDStat, which will quantitatively track and measure data “related to operations, safety, climate and the mental and physical health of members.”

Details on the initiatives are still being ironed out, a department spokeswoman said.

The two new initiatives appear to be similar to the NYPD’s revised disciplinary guidelines for cops accused of misconduct and CompStat, which measures crime trends both citywide and at the precinct level.

These steps come as the FDNY tackles the results of a bombshell internal “Firehouse Climate Survey” which showed that Black and female firefighters are subjected to harassment and uncivil treatment at three times the rate of their colleagues.

Andrew Ansbro, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said he and his members want to make sure the disciplinary matrix is done fairly and judiciously.

“The devil will be in the details,” Ansbro said. “We want to retain the ability to advocate for our members.”

The union will play a role in how the matrix is formed, Ansbro said, adding that in the past, the department’s disciplinary system was “weaponized” by some who continually reported issues that could have easily been resolved.

His members still want to negotiate on the departmental charges because of extenuating circumstances, Ansbro said.

“We’ve been assured by the department that they aren’t looking to create new disciplinary initiatives, they just want to create a more harmonious workplace,” he said. “If they can stick to those parameters, then we can work with it.

“Anything that can deescalate and diffuse a minor problem before they become major we want to work toward,” he said.

The survey examined tensions and workplace issues within the fire department and was ordered by a federal monitor appointed as part of a legal settlement with the Vulcan Society, a Black firefighters organization.

First responders experiencing harassment and incivility seldom report their experiences and many of those who do report harassment and incivility indicated they experienced repercussions for doing so, the survey showed.

The survey chalked up most of the incivility to a lack of information about department test results and performance standards, which led to some believing that “hiring standards have been lowered to achieve Equal Employment Opportunity goals,” according to the department’s heavily redacted findings, which were released Friday.

The survey determined that testing and performance standards should be clearer and more transparent.

Those that experienced workplace harassment described life in the firehouse as a “frat-like brotherhood culture to which all are expected to conform,” the survey noted.

“Those who don’t or speak out against it are ostracized,” some claimed, adding that “those who differ from the majority are singled out and ridiculed.”

“Racist and sexist comments are commonplace and people go along with it to avoid being ostracized,” firefighters taking the survey indicated.

The officers that run the firehouse also engage in bullying and hazing and “set a negative tone (particularly about diversity),” the survey noted.

Some who took the survey feared workplace retaliation and believed their complaints could not be investigated accurately “because members of the firehouse will band together and deny any wrongdoing to protect the firehouse and, further, ostracize complainants.”

More than 4,000 firefighters responded to the survey, which began in 2019 and was stalled by the pandemic. Responses were anonymous.

Kavanagh said the findings of the survey “are challenges for every large organization and fire department, and no one has solved them completely.

“The measure of a great organization is its ability to recognize problems, deal with them and prepare for the future. We are those people, and the FDNY is that type of organization,” Kavanagh said. “We will be the leader in this area, as we are in all areas of the fire service.”

Besides the disciplinary matrix and FDStat, the department has created a working group of department executives, unions and affiliated organizations to develop ways to end the adverse culture running through the department.

The FDNY will also create an Office of Professional Development that will better train officers and improve management skills for a “modern, diverse and professional workforce,” the department said.

“Leaders will be trained in best practices, and fully equipped to handle any issue that arises in the firehouse,” the department said.

In 2014, the city agreed to pay $98 million in back pay and benefits to aspiring minority firefighters in a court settlement with the Vulcan Society, which accused the city of discrimination in a 2007 lawsuit.

In 2011, as the case was proceeding through the courts, Brooklyn Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis found that firefighter exams intentionally discriminated against Blacks. A federal appeals court overturned that finding — but it upheld the remedies Garaufis ordered in the case.

Among those remedies was Garaufis’ appointment of a federal monitor to oversee new FDNY recruitment, hiring and retention policies aimed at increasing the number of Blacks and other minorities in the department.

Vulcan Society President Regina Wilson said the survey results confirm what her group has been telling the department for years.

“It’s unfortunate because we were trying to help them resolve these issues in advance,” Wilson, the first woman to lead the Vulcan Society, told the Daily News during an interview last month. “We want to make sure the Fire Department sees the injustices happening with our members and finally do something about it.”

As these new initiatives are installed, Kavanagh continues to clash with the department’s most senior chiefs, several of which are suing her for ageism.

Ten staff chiefs have either been demoted by Kavanagh or have asked to be lowered in rank during the turmoil in the FDNY’s upper ranks.

So far, Kavanagh hasn’t signed off on any of the demotions.

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