The supervisory ranks of the Baltimore County Fire Department are overwhelmingly white, even as the agency becomes more diverse.
Minorities now make up about 25% of the fire department’s 1,043 members, up from 20% in 2015. But today, roughly nine out of every 10 captains and lieutenants are white, and most are men, according to personnel numbers provided by the county. Most other high-ranking positions also are held by whites.
The fire department released its staffing figures this month in response to a request from The Baltimore Sun.
“It’s obvious we have some ways to go,” said County Councilman Julian Jones, the council’s only black member and a retired division chief with the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.
Of 97 Baltimore County fire captains, 90 are white, according to departmental figures. Of 114 fire lieutenants, 102 are white.
All six EMS captains are white, and so are 28 out of 30 EMS lieutenants.
All but one of the eight battalion chiefs are white men.
The department’s new leader, Joanne Rund — who in July became the county’s first female fire chief — says increasing diversity is at the top of her list as she analyzes the agency.ranks
Rund came to Baltimore County after rising through Howard County’s fire department. In her new role, she said she wants to look for any barriers that may be keeping minorities and women from moving up. “What is the blockage on the roadway?” she asked.
The racial imbalance in the department’s management underscores longstanding diversity issues in the fire department and elsewhere in county government as minorities — who now make up more than 40% of county residents — become a larger share of the local population. Baltimore County Police are the subject of a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, which contends county officials have used screening exams that had the effect of weeding out black applicants. The county fire department also drew federal scrutiny of its hiring practices but is no longer under investigation, county officials say.
“There’s an amazing disparity here," said Amahl Foster, a county fire specialist and a former president of the Guardian Knights, which represents black county firefighters. He called the statistics for captains and lieutenants “embarrassing.”
Foster said it’s not unusual for him to be the only black firefighter at a scene. And “if you’re an African American, there aren’t many officers to seek out as mentors.”
County officials say it will take time for leadership to catch up with changing demographics because people need to rise through the ranks. But experts say the county needs to ensure that employees have support and encouragement along the way.
Increasing diversity has been a challenge for many departments, with the fire service nationally remaining dominated by white men.
But Baltimore County in particular faces legal pressures to address hiring issues. County officials have said the federal lawsuit against the police department filed last month stemmed from an earlier investigation into minority hiring practices in both the police and fire departments that began around 2012. They’ve said the Justice Department informed them in April the fire department investigation was closed.
The Justice Department has declined to comment on why it closed the fire department investigation.
In a recent court filing, attorneys for the county denied that the county’s police hiring practices were discriminatory.
But since his campaign last year, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, has said he is committed to diversity in the workforce. This year, he appointed the county’s first female police chief as well as Rund, and he recently hired a chief diversity and inclusion officer for county government.
The county’s population is now about 57% white, 30% black, 6% Asian and 6% Hispanic, according to census figures.
Overall, whites make up about 75% of the fire department, county figures show. African Americans account for 20%. Asians and Hispanics are 2% each.
Women are about 23% of the fire department.
In the fire service, diversity can help earn community trust, build strong teams and better meet the public’s needs, said Deryn Rizzi, who chairs the Human Relations Committee for the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
Departments around the United States are trying to recruit more diversely, said Rizzi, who is fire chief of Vaughan, a Canadian city north of Toronto. She said community engagement geared toward encouraging future applicants is especially critical. Agencies are trying events like open houses, fire cadet programs and youth fire camps.
In Baltimore County, the five most recent recruit classes have ranged from 27% minority to 42%, with women accounting for 12% to 55% of those classes.
It’s highly competitive to join the fire department. Baltimore County received 2,100 applications for a recent recruit class. Only 26 were selected.
Once in the department, those seeking promotions undergo a process that includes written and oral examinations. The promotions may require a specific length of service with the department.
David Blenman, the current president of the Guardian Knights, said he is encouraged by progress in recent years, but said the department needs to do more to ensure diversity of all kinds and retain minorities. He said some minorities have left the department because they don’t feel they are treated fairly. Some others are choosing not to pursue promotions into the upper ranks.
“Baltimore County is a melting pot,” said Blenman, who works in the fire marshal’s office. “It’s one thing to hire minorities; it’s another thing to retain them.”
In 2015, after the death of Freddie Gray of injuries suffered while in the custody of Baltimore police, Foster said he felt compelled to write a letter to then-Baltimore County Fire Chief John Hohman. He told him there was "still racial tension within this department.”
He was disappointed by what he called a lack of empathy from county fire department members, as well as “racially insensitive” comments.
“I have heard statements about Mr. Gray regarding his criminal background, as if that justifies his death,” wrote Foster, who grew up in the city and lives there now. “I have not heard of anyone from the department or any individual station offering to help or expressing any support of the city."
Nelson Lim, a senior sociologist with the RAND Corp., a policy research institution, said it’s important to examine why more minorities aren’t seeking to advance to supervisory posts.
“That is information that senior leaders should take to heart and say, why do minorities and women think that they don’t have a shot?” said Lim, whose work focuses on diversity and inclusion.
He said having a diverse managerial staff depends on the opportunities people are given along the way. "Who got mentorship? Who got opportunity? Who got coaching?”
“I always tell people, leaders are not born. Leaders are made,” Lim said. “You need to peel the onion back and say ... 'Where does the segregation start?' ”
Blenman noted that because firefighting runs in many families, some firefighters can draw upon their relatives’ experience and ask for advice with studying, Blenman said. “They have that other resource of family ... where minorities might not.” He said the Guardian Knights offers study groups for those pursuing promotions.
Foster pointed out that minorities are less likely to take part in the volunteer system, where teens can learn skills early and are exposed to the culture of the fire service. "We don’t have a volunteer firefighting system in Baltimore City,” he noted.
Rund said she is trying to create an inclusive culture within the department and wants to understand her employees’ personal experiences and perspectives.
“I listen and I try to understand what’s going on behind the scenes before I try to change things,” Rund said.
A few weeks into her tenure, she found herself managing the response to a social media firestorm. Three minority recruits, two black and one Latino, were criticized when they stood but didn’t salute the flag during their graduation ceremony. For some, it evoked images of protests by some NFL players.
The department issued a statement defending the recruits and explaining that, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they did not salute for religious reasons. Rund said she visited every member of the recruit class and “apologized for everything that they went through.”
“It really cast a dark shadow on the graduation — and that should be a glorious night for them,” Rund said.
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Baltimore Sun data reporter Christine Zhang contributed to this article.