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

Recruitment procedure, entrance exam blamed for lack of diversity

April 20, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

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.

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