The Baltimore City Fire Department created a new division two years ago in an effort to increase recruitment of minorities, specifically African-Americans, who made up 65 percent of the city's population but only half so large a share of the city's firefighters. The effort was an unqualified success; thanks to the efforts of its small staff, Baltimore amassed nearly 3,000 names of prospective firefighters, 80 percent of them minorities. The effort was also entirely ineffective; the department was 32 percent African-American when the division was created, and it's 32 percent African-American now.
The problem? The department is not hiring and likely won't be for at least the next two years. In fact, if the mayor's proposal for a new shift structure is approved by an arbitrator later this spring, the department will actually shrink in size in the years ahead.
It certainly sounds bad to cut a division devoted to recruiting minority firefighters to work for a department whose demographics are out of whack with the city's. But given the reality of the city's staffing situation, the $245,000 annual budget for the division could be much better spent on other things for the foreseeable future.
Having a fire department whose demographics reflect those of the city it serves is important. It indicates that the opportunity for entry and advancement in a good civil service job is equally available to all in the city, and it fosters a degree of closeness between the department and the residents it serves. But it has also proved stubbornly difficult to achieve, more so than in other city government agencies. The Baltimore Police Department, for example, is 40 percent African-American and 53 percent minority.
Part of the explanation is cultural. Firefighting, even more than police work, is a family profession; sons follow fathers and grandfathers into the service, meaning that a department's demographics may not change as quickly as the city it protects. The job is also unique in that a fire house is effectively a second home, which helps make fire companies particularly tight-knit organizations — but also potentially uncomfortable for outsiders.
But those obstacles are surmountable. Baltimore County, for example, is making progress in hiring recruit classes that better reflect its increasingly diverse population. The county is now about 35 percent minority, and its fire department's last five recruit classes have ranged from 34 percent to 41 percent minority. The county has increased its efforts to recruit in minority communities and has made diversity training a regular part of its professional development in its public safety agencies.
In fact, in the last five classes for each jurisdiction, Baltimore County has been slightly more successful than the city in recruiting minority firefighters — 37 percent compared to 35 percent. Given that the city needs a much higher percentage to reflect its demographics, that's not good.
The city was embarrassed by an all-white recruit class in 2004, but its efforts to bring more diversity to its new firefighters have been inconsistent since then. It was reasonable, even overdue, for the city to create the recruitment division in 2011. The trouble is, that happened to coincide with a time of severe budget stress for the city and cutbacks for the fire department. Based on the number of potential candidates it has compiled and the prospects for future hiring, the city could go for years more without needing another recruitment push.
The important thing, though, is for the city to make clear that it is committed to fostering diversity within the fire department — both for the sake of those who already work there and in the interests of making it an appealing place to those it might one day recruit. Fire Chief James Clack has taken several steps in that direction, including an effort to revamp the discipline process to make it fairer and more uniform. The department is including a practical test in addition to a written one in its promotion process, and the mayor has allocated $300,000 in new funding for diversity training in next year's budget.
And when the department does hire again, it could have a big advantage. Right now, the starting salary for a new firefighter in Baltimore City is $34,146, almost exactly the same as it is in the county. If the mayor's shift schedule proposal is accepted, that will jump to $38,414. That might make as much of a difference in attracting qualified candidates — minority and otherwise — as a recruiting division would.