A fire left burning too long

March 03, 1995

In 1978, the federal government sued the Baltimore County Fire Department for discriminatory hiring practices. Department leaders agreed to an affirmative action plan, but during the next 16 years, they acted as if this was one fire they could contain without having to douse it entirely.

At the time of the suit, only two black firefighters worked for the county. Now there are 68, though they represent only 6 percent of the 1,092-member force. (About 12 percent of county residents are black.) This week, the department swore in its first black captain, bringing the number of black officers in the county fire department to a grand total of two.

The problem goes deeper than a mere numbers game. Yet the numbers clearly reflect the failure of department leaders over the years to recruit, nurture and promote black firefighters. Observers on both sides of the issue dismiss virulent racism as the root cause of the problem, pointing instead to a long-standing institutional ignorance of minority needs and desires.

Last spring, when Elwood H. Banister retired as chief and was replaced by James H. Barnes Jr., the department finally had a leader who recognized the validity of black firefighters' complaints. Chief Barnes, who continues in an acting capacity, quickly formed a Fair Practices Committee with three subcommittees to recommend changes in how the department recruits and treats its minority members. The panels are expected to report back soon with their recommendations.

Sure to be included are some, or most, of the changes sought by the Guardian Knights, an organization of black county firefighters. One of the Knights' requests is for officers and uniformed employees to undergo training in fair practices and conflict resolution, to increase the sensitivity of whites toward blacks on the force. For too many years, white members of both the professional and volunteer fire departments in Baltimore County have viewed black firefighters as aliens. Five years from the 21st century, in a rapidly urbanizing place such as Baltimore County, that attitude still has to be dealt with?

Blacks on the force admit some of their brethren could show greater interest in taking the test required for promotion within the department. That's one way they could increase their influence. For now, however, the big push for reform will have to come from the top of a fire department that has let this blaze burn too long.

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