NEW YORK — The New York Fire Department, one of the Big Apple's most iconic institutions, is in the hot seat over allegations that racism keeps its ranks almost lily-white.
Thundering around on immaculately maintained red trucks, the city's "Bravest" are local heroes, admired for their professionalism and lauded for their self-sacrifice on 9/11, when 343 died in the collapsing Twin Towers.
But a trial that started this week in Brooklyn federal court is tearing up that perfect picture.
The plaintiffs, led by a group of black firefighters called the Vulcan Society, claim systemic bias in favor of whites and want Judge Nicholas Garaufis to force drastic change.
Paul Washington, a firefighter captain who initiated the Vulcans' legal battle, said the FDNY faces the same kind of transformation that swept the New York Police Department, the so-called "Finest," years ago.
"There's a good chance this will be historic," Washington told AFP.
The fire department denies racism, but the raw numbers are startling.
In a melting pot city where 25 percent of the population is black and 27 percent Hispanic, just 3.4 percent of firefighters are black and 6.7 percent Latino, the plaintiffs say.
In fact, it takes only a look at burly crews racing through Manhattan, their trucks emblazoned with the names of fallen comrades and flying the American flag, to note the absence of black and brown faces.
Held in an impressive courthouse just a few blocks from FDNY headquarters, the trial is only the latest in a series of legal assaults brought by the US Justice Department and others aiming to force greater minority hiring.
Garaufis already ruled last year that FDNY entrance exams were skewed to favor white applicants.
Fire chiefs say change is already underway and point to intensive recruitment this summer among non-whites ahead of next January's exam.
Testifying at the start of the trial Tuesday, the assistant commissioner for recruitment and diversity, Michele Maglione, said record numbers of non-whites could take the test, which is held once every four years.
Radio commercials are targeting stations favored by African Americans and Latinos, while recruiters are going daily into deep corners of the outer boroughs with fliers depicting a cheerfully multi-racial workplace.
According to Maglione, the breakdown of people registering interest in the test is so far 63 percent white, 20.7 percent Hispanic, 12.9 percent black, and 2.9 percent Asian. At the same stage of recruitment ahead of the previous test in 2007, those numbers had been 73.1, 15.2, 8.3 and 2.3 percent.
"We're doing everything we can," Maglione told the court. "I believe we're absolutely on the correct path."
At a recruitment drive near Harlem, three uniformed African-American firefighters handed out leaflets showing black off-duty firefighters playing basketball and a group of white and black men laughing around a barbecue.
The recruiters seemed genuinely to love their jobs, which although sometimes dangerous, earn almost USD100,000 after five years and a generous retirement package after 20 years.
But one firefighter said the odds are stacked against minorities -- not so much due to outright racism, as a self-perpetuating, clan-like culture automatically favoring whites.
"A lot of times, the firefighters who are already on the job, they have their family and grandkids around so that it's almost passed on generation to generation," the firefighter said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"These jobs are almost passed on, generation to generation. Their kids are exposed to it. They're exposed to it by their fathers. They're even familiar with the equipment, they're taken to the firehouses as children," the firefighter said.
"But when black kids see firehouses, they see whites in there. They don't make the link that they can do this too."
Among the people stopping by the recruitment desk was Dario Guerrier, a 21-year-old Haitian. He said he had never met a firefighter but watched a crew tackle a blaze a few days earlier.
"I liked what they did. I liked the camaraderie they had and it seems they were very well prepared," Guerrier said, admiringly.
Annie Martinez, who is of Cuban origin, stopped by to make enquiries for her son, who she said had idolized firefighters since he was a young boy. Now, in his mid-20s, he dreamt of applying for a job.
Martinez, 47, said white firefighters had always been welcoming to her son, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, even taking him on family outings when he was small. But she worried the doors to a job might always be closed.
"Hopefully they'll take in more minorities now, but it's been that way for so long that Hispanics like me would not even try to get in," she said. "They just don't see the point."