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.
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 hiring practice.
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.
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."