A national black firefighters association and African-American leaders in Anne Arundel County are criticizing state officials for allowing an all-white class of firefighter recruits at BWI Marshall Airport.
The new class of firefighters, which started on the job last month, is composed of nine white men, airport spokesman Jonathan Dean confirmed. With their arrival, the Maryland Aviation Administration's 89-person fire and rescue department became 26 percent minority and women, and 13 percent African-American, he said.
Officials with the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People say African-Americans, Hispanics and women are underrepresented.
"The concern is the fact that there's a large segment of the Baltimore community that has been denied the opportunity of employment," said James Hill, president of the black firefighters association.
"It all comes back to diversity," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP. "The NAACP is concerned because here we are in 2014, and we're still not able to provide a diverse force over at BWI."
Dean said the aviation administration has a "commitment to fair and equal employment" and is "taking steps to help ensure more diverse candidates" are considered when new hires are selected.
Dean said airport officials met with the NAACP and other groups last summer to discuss concerns ahead of the finalization of the most recent recruit class and discussed ways to bring in a more diverse candidate pool.
"We look forward to continuing our work with these organizations and others to beef up opportunities for minority candidates," he said.
However, the airport needed to hire quickly for the most recent class, given recent vacancies, and the most qualified candidates were the nine men selected, Dean said.
"Most of them had significant airport firefighting experience and all of them had extensive firefighting experience," Dean said.
The complaints about the new class dial back enthusiasm the association and the NAACP expressed at the end of last year, when Gregory Lawrence, an official with the black firefighters association, was named acting chief of the airport fire and rescue department — the first African-American to hold the position.
The complaints are the latest in a series of claims from black firefighters that they don't get equal consideration in recruitment at fire departments throughout the region, including in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County.
Lawrence, named to the acting role at BWI in November, had helped to lead criticism months prior of a mostly white recruit class at the Anne Arundel County Fire Department — an uproar that led to the unveiling of a new diversity plan for that department.
Lawrence declined to comment on the airport's new recruit class and his role in its selection.
Dean said Lawrence played a role in his previous job as the department's deputy chief and in his current capacity, but Hill and other African-American leaders in the region questioned the extent to which Lawrence was able to make decisions regarding the new class.
"Chief Lawrence had no hand in this class, from what I understand," Hill said. "I'm sure that Chief Lawrence will do all he can to make sure, if given the opportunity, that the airport will do all it can to be inclusive."
Carl Snowden, a member of the local Caucus of African American Leaders and the legal redress chairman of the county NAACP branch, said while the airport was named after civil rights pioneer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in 2005, its fire department has not lived up to Marshall's legacy.
"We just found it incredible that this would be happening, particularly at an airport that is named after Thurgood Marshall," Snowden said. "It's just unacceptable."
Dean said the airport's fire department is looking at diversity initiatives and best practices nationwide that will inform the next recruitment.
The process to find a permanent chief for the department is ongoing, he said, but a decision will be made "shortly."
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