Racism in the ranks Fire controversies: Annapolis, Baltimore County must get to bottom of alleged incidents.

September 23, 1997

IT IS DISTRESSING to hear that a veteran Annapolis fire captain may have impeded rescue efforts because of his own racial prejudice.If the federal and city investigators corroborate allegations that Capt. Gene Kirchner refused to allow firefighters working under him to assist a paramedic team in the treatment of a black heart attack victim, then the city is obligated to impose the harshest possible disciplinary measures against him.

Racial issues have plagued the Annapolis Fire Department for some time. Unfortunately, it is not alone.

In Baltimore County, the firefighters union and fire chief are at odds over the chief's suspension without pay of a firefighter accused of leaving a noose in a black co-worker's locker, apparently as some sick practical joke.

In Annapolis' 94-person department, hiring and promotion issues have been a persistent sore point. It is reprehensible if tensions arising from those personnel issues have spilled into the critical delivery of emergency services.

Since 1985, the department has operated under a federal judicial consent order requiring it to hire more black firefighters. The decree mandates that 30 percent of the firefighters -- roughly the percentage of African-Americans in the state capital -- should be black. The number of African-Americans has increased, but only represents 14 percent of the unit.

The City Council recently voted to extend the consent decree to give the department more time to satisfy the court order. Rather than let this drag on another 12 years, the council should give the department a deadline for compliance.

Credit must be given to the emergency workers who filed this complaint against a superior. The department's hierarchy must stand behind the workers rather than any imagined departmental code of silence.

While the city awaits the results of an investigation, immediate steps must be taken to reassure residents that emergency services are provided without discrimination.

Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins has expressed revulsion over this incident; it would not hurt for him to repeat it again in a public forum. Forceful statements against discrimination are an important tool in repelling and preventing such behavior.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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