Firefighter group denounces lack of diversity in Arundel's latest recruit class

The International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters says it will seek a federal review of hiring practices at the Anne Arundel County Fire Department based on the latest firefighter recruit class, which is composed of 72 white males.

Association President James F. Hill II said he'll ask the federal government to cut off funding to Anne Arundel's department until it improves diversity.

Hill said a prerequisite for accepting some federal grants is having an inclusive hiring process. "Therefore, we're asking that the federal government pull their funding, because they were not true to the statements they signed on to," he said.

Gregory Lawrence, the association's state representative and a deputy chief for Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport's fire department, said it's "hard to accept" that county personnel officials didn't realize the makeup of the recruit class before it started Aug. 1 and include more diverse recruits in the class.

"When I heard that Anne Arundel County had an all-white, male class, that gave me alarm. No diversity. And when I say no diversity — no women, no African-Americans and no other ethnic groups," Lawrence said.

Anne Arundel County is 76.9 percent white, 16.1 percent African-American, 3.7 percent Asian and 6.6 percent Hispanic, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The department is currently 92 percent white, 5 percent African-American, 1 percent Asian and about 1 percent "other," officials said, and about 87 percent male.

Lawrence said those numbers need to change. "We'd like to see our fire service look like our communities," he said.

Division Chief Keith Swindle, a department spokesman, said the recruiting process for the latest class stretched back to last fall. He said Fire Chief Michael Cox, who took over the department this summer, implemented among his first steps a work group to brainstorm better ways to improve diversity in the department.

Swindle said the goal is to have the Fire Department's workforce reflect the diversity of the community, and the department has been working with groups that represent African-American firefighters and Hispanic firefighters as part of the work group.

"We're working to improve the workforce, to have them more representative of the community. The step that we're taking in forming the recruitment work group, we feel, is a move in the right direction," Swindle said.

Swindle said the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters had not previously contacted the department about diversity. "The first that this issue was brought to our attention was" Monday, Swindle said.

Henry Burris, president of the Vulcan Blazers, a group that represents African-American firefighters in Baltimore, said he'd been contacted by Cox for help in improving recruiting. Burris said recruiting minorities into the fire service is a problem across the country.

"We're planning on giving whatever assistance we can," Burris said. He noted, however, that it will be a challenge to improve diversity in future classes because Anne Arundel is seeking recruits who have some previous firefighting training, which he said few minorities have.

Asked about Cox's efforts, including the work group, Lawrence said he'd reserve comment until he sees what results the efforts will bring.

Linda West, a spokeswoman for County Executive Laura Neuman, said the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters could be a partner in improving recruitment and retention of minorities in the fire department.

"We want this group to be part of the process," West said. "Can we do better? Absolutely."

The department is planning more fire academy classes and could hire up to 100 firefighters over the next year. An independent arbiter ruled earlier this year that the department must keep a 24-hours-on, 72-hours-off shift for firefighters, rather than the 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off shift that the county had proposed. The county needs to hire more firefighters to staff the 24/72 schedule.

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