2010-05-14 / Top Stories

New Group Seeks To Maintain FD Hiring Standards

Paul Mannix A Man With A Mission
By Howard Schwach

Deputy Chief Paul Mannix speaks about “Merit Counts” at The Wave office this week. Deputy Chief Paul Mannix speaks about “Merit Counts” at The Wave office this week. Deputy Chief Paul Mannix, who works for the fire department at Division Six in the Bronx, is a man with a mission.

He wants to make sure that the department maintains hiring standards in the face of court challenges by several minority groups seeking to change the way New York City firefighters are hired.

“I want to guarantee equal opportunity rather than guaranteed results,” he says.

As part of his drive to maintain standards, now joined by many firefighters and their constituent groups, Mannix has started “Merit Matters,” (www.meritmattersusa.blogspot.com) to address what he sees as an attack on merit as well as on the fire department.

“Merit Matters is an advocacy group dedicated to preserving merit in the FDNY testing, hiring and promotion process,” his website says, promising to work with the FDNY on issues of common concern, to counter false claims and information disseminated by others and to educate and engage the public through use of the media.

Before he “rolled over” to become a firefighter, Mannix was an NYPD officer.

He says that his first interest in the question of merit in the city’s hiring practices came when he sat for the sergeant’s exam.

“We got a lot of ‘quota sergeants’ because the Guardian’s Society sued, and forced the city into a quota,” he told The Wave. “We got a lot of sergeants who were incompetent, who didn’t know what they were doing on the street. It was very dangerous.”

“I vowed never to go down that road again,” he said.

Now, he has been in the fire department for 21 years, moving up the ladder to his current position.

He began to put his group together in April, after a group of New Haven (Connecticut) firefighters sued when an entire promotion list was thrown out because there were no black firefighters on the list.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled that the city’s action was unconstitutional and ordered the firefighters who passed the test be promoted.

Last summer, federal judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled that the city’s firefighter’s test must be biased because many more white than minority candidates pass the test.

That ruling coalesced many firefighters around the issue and Mannix’s group.

In fact, his organization is now going national, with chapters in 12 cities around the nation.

Many, however, see his organization as racist, trying to maintain the status quo in which the great majority of firefighters are white and male.

That doesn’t bother Mannix.

“Empathy is just another word for bias,” Mannix said. “I’ve been called a racist many times. One organization even called me a bigot on their website, saying that I wasn’t fit to serve the diverse communities of New York City.”

“Once the other side begins to call you names,” he added, “they have lost the argument. They can’t refute the facts.”

Mannix is getting assistance in his fight from attorney Keith Sullivan, one of the partners in Sullivan and Gallishaw.

Sullivan has helped Mannix set up an online petition and is working on a Friend of the Court brief in support of Mannix and his organization.

“We believe in this issue,” Sullivan told The Wave on Wednesday. “We believe in equality, not handouts.”

“The [firefighter’s] test is no more challenging than a high school reading test,” he added. “Anybody who can pass that minimum test can easily pass the firefighter’s written test.”

Sullivan says that his firm has dedicated several lawyers and more than a half-million dollars to the cause.

With city lawyers still trying to decide whether or not to appeal the federal ruling, and with the feds deciding on what remedies to take against the city and the fire department, the time is growing short to marshal the forces necessary to maintain standards, Mannix believes.

“This is a critical period,” Mannix warns. “Federal oversight of FDNY hiring is contemplated and a remedy that will be closer to ruination is sought.”

He urges all of those interested in maintaining FDNY testing standards to call their city legislators and urge that the federal ruling be appealed.

“For the safety of our citizens, we have to maintain a strong fire department,” he concluded. “The idea is not to get as many applicants to pass as possible, but to insure that standards are maintained.”

Sullivan agrees. He said that the online petition “went viral” this week, with thousands adding their names to the cause.

“Watering down the test will not only endanger firefighters, but will also endanger the lives of city residents,” Sullivan concluded.

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