County fire unit to name fair practices chief Blacks in department applaud move, decision to establish rules, training

November 16, 1995|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After years of complaints about slow progress in hiring and promoting minorities, Baltimore County's Fire Department is preparing to hire a fair practices administrator and establish rules and fair practices training.

The moves, and the new fire chief who ordered them, are LTC winning high praise from a group of African-American firefighters who last winter felt compelled to bypass the Fire Department and complain to the county's administrative officer.

"I don't think we could ask any more," James W. Artis Jr., president of the black firefighters' Guardian Knights, said of Chief Allen A. Thomason, who came from San Diego in July. Development of the fair practices program was begun by acting chief James H. Barnes Jr. before Chief Thomason was hired.

Mr. Artis said attitudes are beginning to change in the department, for which he credits Chief Thomason. The chief has made his priorities clear in station-house visits and during a weekend training session for the department's top brass.

"He's 10 steps ahead of us," Mr. Artis said.

Firefighters' union President Kevin B. O'Connor also had high praise for the chief and agreed that establishment of fair practices training is long overdue in the department. The county police have had a fair practices system for several years.

"Baltimore County has been very, very behind in human relations for years and years," he said.

The chief said he was surprised to find no fair practices system in place. "The county is behind," he said, adding, "Like any big organization we have some problems, but they're not severe."

The Guardian Knights complained more of being shut out and ignored in a department that was "run like a club" than of overt discrimination.

Mr. Artis acknowledged, however, that one reason black firefighters were not winning promotions was that few competed for them.

One fair practices goal is to encourage firefighters to take promotional tests and perhaps create a mentoring program for firefighters who want advice on career advancement.

The department named its first black captain in February, making him only the second black officer in the 1,092-member force. The county has a 12 percent minority population, while blacks make up about 6 percent of the Fire Department. Including women, however, the department claims a 15 percent minority representation.

The county is reviewing applications for the new civilian post of fair practices administrator for the Fire Department. Whoever is hired will report to the fire chief.

The new administrator is to begin fair practices training for all county firefighters, handle complaints, educate employees about the benefits of a diverse work force, and improve recruitment of minorities.

The Guardian Knights wanted this key official to have direct access to the top levels of county government instead of reporting to the fire chief, but Mr. Artis said his group is satisfied with the new arrangement.

They also are willing to wait, he said, to see what the new official and Chief Thomason propose for getting more African-Americans into the department's fast-growing emergency medical operations.

Since emergency medical fire recruits are required to be state-certified as a precondition for application, most come from the county's volunteer fire companies where they can get the training -- but which few blacks join. The training is also available at community colleges.

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