Anne Arundel County officials and black community leaders are grappling with how to hire more minority firefighters and paramedics - possibly by no longer giving preference to volunteers - in a question of fairness and legality.
Under a 1990 personnel code, county volunteer firefighters who are certified in firefighting and emergency response are given preference over other candidates who meet the same certification standards, said county Personnel Director Randy Schultz.
Members of several black organizations contend that the volunteer preference thwarts efforts to hire minorities, in part because there are fewer minority volunteers.
"We're hoping the county lifts that criterion, because it would open opportunities to minorities," said Anne Arundel County NAACP President Gerald G. Stansbury.
It's not that volunteers shouldn't be rewarded for their service or experience, Stansbury said. But they shouldn't be given automatic preference in hiring, he said, adding, "Other experience, especially in public safety or military service, should be considered, too."
Some departments, including those in Howard County and Baltimore, do not automatically give preference to volunteer firefighters as job candidates.
Meeting with Owens
In a meeting last week with County Executive Janet S. Owens, the policy was brought up by members of RESPECT, a coalition of county black organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a new fraternal organization of professional black firefighters.
As a result, Schultz said, the personnel office is reviewing the county's preferential hiring practice.
"We believe it's time to review this section of the code to see if it really is serving a productive purpose," he said.
Volunteer firefighters have received basic training and shown dedication to the job, fire officials said. At the same time, they acknowledged, there's no reason a candidate who hasn't volunteered couldn't do just as good a job.
Nothing blocks a minority applicant from volunteering in the county, said Capt. Julian E. Jones Jr., the department's recruiter and president of the new Anne Arundel County Professional Black Firefighters Association.
Jones said he recommends that applicants who want to work in Anne Arundel volunteer, because they probably won't be hired in the county unless they are volunteers.
Jones has worked with John Long, president of the county volunteer fire service, who developed a cadet program to recruit high school volunteers.
Long and Jones hope the program will increase the number of minority and young volunteers.
"We want everyone," said Long, who volunteers at Earleigh Heights, which has six minority volunteers, possibly the most of any volunteer company in the county.
'An open door'
No one doubts the good intentions of the county's volunteer recruiters or knows of any examples of discrimination by volunteer companies, black leaders said.
"I believe it is an open door," said Stansbury. But he and Long said that, historically, minorities have not volunteered as firefighters.
"Part of it is economic restrictions," Stansbury said. "They're in lower-paying jobs and can't afford to take that kind of time."
Other times, Stansbury and Jones said, minorities hesitate to join volunteer companies because there are no other minority members.
"If they walk in and say, 'I don't see anyone who looks like me,' it's not really a matter of how they're treated," said Jones. "They may just feel like they don't belong."
It's a pattern that's hard to break, he said.
Volunteer fire service is also often a family tradition, which is evident in nearly all of the county's volunteer companies.
But because it's not a family tradition, or someone hasn't had the time or felt comfortable volunteering, shouldn't mean that he or she can't make fire service a career, Jones said.
"I just love this job," he said. "I want everyone to have the opportunity to do it. By hiring only volunteers, we're discriminating against everyone who is not."
In May, a Baltimore man sued Anne Arundel County in federal court, alleging that he had been denied a firefighter position because he is black. The case is pending.
The exact number of minority firefighters in the county, which has a minority population of about 21 percent, wasn't immediately available.
The county Fire Department has about 30 blacks, about 6 percent of the more than 500 firefighters and paramedics, according to unofficial estimates.
In Baltimore County's Fire Department, which has more than 1,100 members, 92.9 percent are white, 6.8 percent are black, and fewer than 1 percent are of Hispanic or Asian descent.
In Howard County, which has 266 firefighters, paramedics and command staff members, about 13 percent are black and fewer than 1 percent are of Hispanic or Asian descent.
Anne Arundel County Fire Department spokesman John Scholz said that although the county personnel department makes hiring decisions, Chief Roger C. Simonds plans to meet with the new blackfirefighters association in the next few weeks.
Scholz said Simonds has been looking at whether to recommend a physical ability test that is used nationally to screen fire-service candidates.
A candidate's volunteer service is a good indicator of who would be likely to finish the academy's program, weeding out those who might be afraid of heights or have other problems that would prevent them from becoming firefighters, Scholz said.
The test would eliminate the need to give volunteers preference, Scholz said.
However, it remains unclear whether the process would be discriminatory in some other way, he said.