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updated 1/11/2011 2:47:05 PM ET 2011-01-11T19:47:05

Paul Washington is a New York City firefighter, like his dad and his uncle before him. His brother is also on the job. Some of his cousins are firefighters, too.

Family legacies aren't unusual in the Fire Department of New York, but the Washingtons are — because they are black. And the nation's largest fire department remains an overwhelmingly white force.

But a federal lawsuit, a court order and a revamped application system are offering a glimmer of a future in which the FDNY could become as diverse as the population it serves — a goal other big-city departments have already achieved.

In a city of 8 million where more than half the population belongs to a racial or ethnic minority, only 9 percent of the 11,200 uniformed firefighters are black or Hispanic.

"This is New York City," said Washington, the catalyst for a federal hiring-discrimination lawsuit against the city. "We're the most diverse, interesting place in the world, and our other city agencies reflect that, so why shouldn't the Fire Department?"

No new firefighters are being hired for the FDNY until a test deemed discriminatory by a federal judge can be redone. In the meantime, the department is paying overtime to bridge a gap of about 300 firefighters. Potential candidates wait, taking other jobs in the meantime.

Jamel Nicholson, 35, who is black, took the exam in 2002, scoring nearly perfect on the physical exam and getting a 74 percent on the written exam. He waited in vain, though, and instead ended up a subway conductor.

"I still want to do it. My views haven't changed after all this time," said Nicholson, who has taken some community college courses. "It's affected me a great deal. I really wanted to help people — especially after 9/11."

But Washington — a firefighter for more than 20 years who was president of the Vulcan Society, an FDNY fraternal organization, when he pushed for the lawsuit — wants more than just a new test. In court papers last month, lawyers for the society asked that the exam, now given every four years, be offered more frequently.

They also requested that a professional minority consultant help craft a recruitment program; urged the use of innovative recruiting tools like Facebook; and suggested bringing back a cadet program to encourage more minority involvement.

Washington also wants city high school graduates to get bonus points. Right now, firefighters get points for residency, but Washington says it's easy to fake. The city is weighing the proposal.

In Los Angeles, 14 percent of the 3,500 or so firefighters are black, and about 30 percent are Hispanic. In Philadelphia, 26 percent are black and 3 percent Hispanic among 2,400 firefighters. Those demographics reflect overall city populations or, in the case of Los Angeles, are more diverse than the city.

Not so in New York. Washington's family legacy was something he wished for other black city residents, and after failed attempts to change the racial makeup from within the department, he filed his complaint about 12 years ago with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

The complaint charged that the exam given to FDNY applicants was littered with SAT-like questions that didn't adequately test for firefighting skills. The exam is the weightiest factor in determining where a candidate gets on a hiring list; a physical test and a few other components also play a role.

"This test isn't proving who's the best for the job — this test is proving who got a good education," Washington said. "There's an education gap in this country, and everybody knows it. So to pretend, after 12 years of bad schooling, there's a level playing field and telling them to sit down and compete — it's disingenuous."

The U.S. Department of Justice took up the case and filed a federal lawsuit, and a judge ruled in 2009 in favor of the Vulcan Society and the Justice Department. In a separate decision, the judge said the test was being used to discriminate intentionally and called it a "stain" on an otherwise sterling department.

While it appeals the decision, the city has made significant strides in recruiting minority candidates — an effort it says was not brought on by the legal fight.

Applicants no longer need college credits and can apply if they graduated from high school and held a full-time job for six months or served in the military.

So far this year, 4,445 recruiting events have been held.

"I know firsthand that being a firefighter is 'the best job in the world,' and I want all young people to have an opportunity to understand the benefits of the job and hopefully choose to apply and take the test," Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said in December.

And minorities increasingly say they are interested in the job. In 2007, the last time the test was offered, more than 40 percent of the applicants were minorities — more than double the previous time the test had been offered. Among those who passed the test, 18 percent were Hispanic, 12 percent black and 3 percent Asian.

The new test may take as long as a year to redo, and it's not clear what will happen to candidates who were already on the waiting list.

The city rejected five court-ordered options that would've allowed it to hire with the old test, saying they imposed race-based quotas. The city's top lawyer, Michael Cardozo, has said a third of the top test-takers waiting to be hired were minorities.

Diversity doesn't necessarily end race-related problems. In Houston, where the city's 3,800-member fire department is 17 percent black and 19 percent Hispanic, firefighters received sensitivity training after allegations arose that a noose was found in a firefighter's locker.

Chicago's 4,300-member fire department, the nation's second-largest, is 20 percent black, and 8 percent Hispanic, reflecting the city's general demographic makeup. But the Supreme Court ruled in May that a lawsuit by black members could go forward, challenging the city's decades-old admissions test.

In New York, Washington said, he wants to see the department reflect the city.

"You get such respect from the community; it's great," he said. "It creates a whole ripple effect for the future. Shouldn't everyone have the chance for that?"

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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