The NAACP and other groups are working with Anne Arundel County on strategies to hire more minority firefighters.
Anne Arundel County Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds Sr. and a county personnel manager will attend the county National Association for the Advancement of Colored People meeting tonight to discuss the hiring policies and the department's stepped-up plans to recruit more minorities.
The meeting is at 8 p.m. in the local chapter's Annapolis office.
The focus of their debate is a county personnel code - used in some form for decades - that gives preference to hiring volunteers.
With so few minority volunteers, minority advocates say it's a discriminatory practice, while volunteers say their dedication and experience should be considered on their applications.
Of the 29 firefighters and paramedics hired by the county this month, four of the recruits were minority. None of them had been volunteers.
"It's important that there be more Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and other minorities in the Fire Department," said Carl O. Snowden, a NAACP member who serves in County Executive Janet S. Owens' cabinet. "The county executive has already pledged that the fire chief and the personnel director will look at this issue."
But, Snowden said, the NAACP and other minority groups, such as RESPECT, a coalition of minority organizations, also want to talk about how they can help solve the problem.
"These discussions are very positive," said Capt. Julian Jones, who heads the county's newly created professional black firefighters association. "Things are moving along great. Recruiting minorities is becoming more of a priority."
For example, applicants are assured no experience is required on advertisements for the department's job fair from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Fire Training Academy in Millersville.
But eliminating the volunteer preference would require the County Council to amend the county personnel code and the county executive to approve it - a revision that county volunteers would protest.
Many volunteers are trained firefighters and certified emergency medical technicians and say their experience should count on job applications.
Most of them work full-time jobs - sometimes several jobs - to support families but find time to volunteer hoping their work will be recognized when the department recruits for full-time positions.
"These are the people with experience and who have shown their dedication to the job. And they earned the preference," said John F. Long Jr., president of the county's volunteer firefighter association. "It's just like veterans who get preference for their service to their country. Volunteer firefighters are veteran firefighters.
"It's sort of frustrating how they're going about this, because if we get more minority volunteers, they'd get the preference too," Long said. "But I understand what the concerns are. We want to work together."
Many Anne Arundel County minority volunteers can't help solve the problem because they don't want to or can't be hired full-time.
Gene Macaraeg, a 24-year-old Filipino who grew up in Severna Park, is a volunteer who initially considered becoming a career paramedic but instead has decided to go to medical school.
Norman Winstead, who has volunteered at Earleigh Heights for the past 12 years, is another minority volunteer who didn't have an interest in working full time.
He is a 76-year-old retired New Jersey bus driver who volunteered as a firefighter during World War II. He's happy to help out with the Earleigh Heights bingo games, fund-raising drives, and keeping the station and equipment in shape, he said.
But he can't run into burningbuildings anymore. "I'm too old to even get into the water pistol fights they have around here," he said.
Winstead added, "I've never once felt unwanted, out of place, discriminated against. When I first joined, the black people in Severna Park asked how I got in. I said, `Simple. I put in an application.'"
"We have a totally open door," said Charles Mohr, president of the Earleigh Heights volunteer company, where a dozen volunteers are minorities.
Still, minorities make up about 6 percent of the paid firefighters and paramedics in a county where minorities make up about 21 percent of the population. About 10 percent of this month's recruit class is minority - about triple the number in the hiring round before it.
One minority applicant filed a federal lawsuit in May against the county claiming its hiring process is discriminatory.
"I feel passed over by the white volunteers, without a question," said Andre Lynch, a 37-year-old insurance agent who applied several times to become a county firefighter. The case is pending.
Not all volunteers receive the preference, which is taken into consideration after testing and background checks, county personnel records show. To begin to qualify for the preference, the candidate must have been an active volunteer for the previous two years.
But in the most recent round of hiring, five volunteers were hired - three of whom received preference, said Randall J. Schultz, the county personnel director.
In November 1998 - the round of hiring before this year - 38 firefighters and paramedics were hired. Ten were white male volunteers and four were white female volunteers, but records weren't kept on whether any of them received preference because they were volunteers, Schultz said.
In that group, three minority men were hired - none of whom had been volunteers."
[The numbers] certainly reflect some of the concerns of the coalition," said Schultz.