City Fire Department recruits 1st all-white class in 50 years

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For the first time since it integrated 50 years ago, the Baltimore City Fire Department has hired an all-white class of recruits for its training academy.

A group of retired black city firefighters, many of whom became pioneers when they integrated the Fire Department in the 1950s and 1960s, are accusing Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. of stamping on racial progress and violating the tenets of the Civil Rights Act.

"The chief has set this department back 50 years with this group," said retired firefighter Alfred Boyd, referring to the 30 men and women in this year's recruiting class.

A fire official called the class an anomaly, saying the department had followed its normal hiring procedures. But the agency is reacting with a couple of quick fixes - including allowing six blacks to skirt the hiring process and join the academy on a conditional basis, and requesting that the entrance test be changed.

In a city where 65 percent of the residents are black, only about 25 percent of its 1,700 firefighters and paramedics are racial minorities. The department said it does not break down the minority figure by individual races.

The retired black firefighters, eight of whom recently met to discuss their discontent with Goodwin and the department's recruiting efforts, have met with the chief's staff to voice their concerns but said they didn't get a sympathetic response.

Goodwin, a third-generation firefighter who was appointed chief in February 2002 by Mayor Martin O'Malley, did not return four calls for comment left for him over the past week. Goodwin's staff confirmed that the chief had received each message.

Other fire officials acknowledge that the lack of minorities in the academy class is something the department needs to address.

"The department, from the division chief of personnel on down, was concerned something like this would happen," said James Gardner, a department spokesman. "It was just one of those anomalies where a great number of minorities did not take the test and, number two, a great number of them did not score high on the test."

Goodwin assumed his post at a time when some at the department felt the agency too often overlooked minorities in recruiting and promoting. Some city officials quietly worried that Goodwin would not do enough about the situation.

City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who grudgingly supported Goodwin's appointment in 2002, said the racial makeup of the current class "is unbelievable."

"This is the history of our Fire Department as it relates to recruiting minorities and people from the city," Young said. "I don't want to discredit the chief, but ultimately this reflects on him."

Young and other council members have called for the matter to be discussed by the City Council. Young is chair of the executive appointments committee which approved Goodwin's hiring and handles his job performance reviews.

"He was already here for his review, but knowing this, we can always bring him back," said Young.

Desegregation

The first black city firefighter was hired in December 1953, but a culture of segregation and racism remained in firehouses for nearly 15 years more, according to a 1971 lawsuit against the city.

In that suit, four black city firefighters won a decision ordering the department to change a promotional system that favored whites because it was weighted by years of service. Many black firefighters had been driven out of the department by harassment and thus few had the required longevity.

The current class of recruits has been training since February and is expected to graduate this summer.

The Fire Department interviewed several black candidates who had passed the entrance exam but in nearly every case the person was disqualified for failing either a criminal background check or drug screening, said department spokesman Kevin Cartwright.

Generally, the Fire Department interviews the top-scoring candidates of an entrance exam. Occasionally, that top group has not included minorities, and the Fire Department has skipped over higher-scoring white candidates to get to black applicants.

"That's the other side of the coin, how many times did we pass over others in order to reach down on the list to do what we wanted to do," Gardner said. "In other words, we would have had to pass over them again to get further down the list."

Other problems

More than its racial makeup, the academy's class has exposed deeper problems with the way the Fire Department recruits, a point on which both the retired officers and Goodwin's administration agree.

Despite fire officials' claims of a department philosophy on hiring city residents, only five of the 30 recruits are from Baltimore. Sixteen are from surrounding Maryland counties and nine are from Pennsylvania, according to a list provided to the retired firefighters.

The Fire Department said it does not advertise in Pennsylvania, or in Baltimore, because it doesn't have an advertising budget. The department said it relies on word of mouth when the entrance exam is to be offered, which might only be once every two or three years.

And some of the retired firefighters and department administrators say the entrance test - formerly administered by the Civil Service Commission and now handled by the city's Department of Human Resources - is based too heavily on prior firefighting knowledge and not enough on general aptitude.

Many of the current recruits had experience with volunteer or auxiliary Fire Departments in their hometowns prior to taking the entrance exam, Gardner said. The implication is that prior knowledge provides a slight edge on the test over those without such experience.

A fire training program at Walbrook Uniform Services Academy, a West Baltimore high school, is the only active program intended to familiarize city residents with firefighting duties, fire officials said.

"My opinion is that the test had an adverse impact on minorities taking it," said retired firefighter Henry Burris. "We have found that the test administered had some built-in biases."

Charles Brown, the Fire Department's chief of personnel, said he did not entirely disagree. In fact, the Fire Department has asked human resources to change some questions on the test so that it has "less adverse impact," Brown said.

"The situation that we have here is that there's not a great number of minority candidates that we were getting from the results of the test," Brown said.

Elliott L. Wheelan, executive director of the Department of Human Resources, the office that administers the entrance exam, defended the test.

"There's nothing I've heard that suggests that there was anything improper about the test," said Wheelan. "At this point, there is no definitive effort or acknowledgment that a new test is needed."

Wheelan did say, however, that replacement exams from a variety of testing companies are being considered at the Fire Department's request. "That doesn't mean that we will change anything," he said.

In November 2002, the last time the entrance test was offered, 836 people took it and 434 passed, Wheelan said.

From that passing group, a recruit class of 40 - including 10 minorities - was hired last year. That list was also used to hire the current class.

Brown said the Fire Department plans to hire a third class from the list this year or early next year.

Brown would not say if there were minorities still on the list who have not yet been interviewed or disqualified and therefore might be eligible for the third class. If not, the department could face fielding a second consecutive all-white class.

Brown referred those questions to Wheelan. Wheelan said his agency does not ask applicants' race and that he doesn't know how many minorities, if any, remain on the list.

Brown said the Fire Department has already begun working to ensure future recruiting classes are diversified.

Since the recruits begin training in February, the Fire Department has added six recent black Walbrook graduates to the academy, Brown said.

The Fire Department circumvented its own rules to get the black recruits into the class by allowing them to skip the entrance exam, which normally must be passed to be eligible for the academy. However, even if they complete the academy, the Walbrook members are not guaranteed a job until they pass an entrance exam.

"In my mind, that's an act of desperation, an attempt to cover up something that should never have been allowed," said retired Deputy Chief Clyde J. Smith. "It's window dressing."

Possible changes

Brown said that more than 100 students are enrolled in fire training classes at Walbrook, and that the Fire Department is considering starting a similar program citywide through other schools.

The Fire Department also said it may develop an advertising and marketing budget to reach out to more city residents and minorities.

The department has also discussed offering the entrance exam more frequently.

And the department plans to reach out to the Vulcan Blazers, a fraternal organization of retired and active black firefighters, some of whose members have complained about the current class, to help recruit minorities.

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