A change for the better

April 21, 2004

IT WAS A FIRST in 50 years - an all-white class of recruits at the Baltimore City Fire Department training academy. What set this year's class apart also alerted department officials that something was wrong. The class was the logical outcome of an outdated hiring system that had made it more and more difficult to bring minorities onto the force.

Yesterday, as complaints reached City Hall about the all-white class that began training in February, Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. announced an overhaul of the department's employment process with the hope of boosting minority hiring. The Fire Department will have complete autonomy over hiring instead of relying on the city's civil service system.

The change is welcome - if it truly enables the chief and his staff to actively recruit and mentor minorities for the force, as they envision. In a majority-black city, minorities should be well represented among its forces on the front lines of public safety. Fire and police services are among the most basic and essential to a community.

Racial minorities make up about 25 percent of the current 1,700-member force. The first black firefighters hired to integrate the force came on the job in 1954, but it took a lawsuit in 1971, filed by four black firefighters, to force a change in discriminatory promotional practices.

The hiring system dates to that era, fire officials say, and it relies on a race-blind test given every two years. Lloyd Carter, a fire battalion chief who heads a fraternal organization of black firefighters and retirees, yesterday agreed that the system was outdated and needed streamlining.

As detailed yesterday in a story by Sun reporter Reginald Fields, the racial makeup of the department has been an issue for years. The first black fire chief, Herman Williams Jr., retired in 2000 after nine years in the job. Chief Goodwin, a veteran of the force who is white, was named to replace Mr. Williams amid some complaints from black leaders. He pledged to promote minorities into top jobs, and he has - the deputy chief of administration and the department's chief personnel officer are black.

The Fire Department's new hiring system will be modeled on that of the Police Department, which controls advertising, recruitment and exams and places a priority on diversifying the force. Of the 195 police officers hired last year, 115 were racial minorities. But Fire Department control over recruitment and hiring won't necessarily mean an increased number of qualified minority applicants. Chief Goodwin has been given an opportunity - at City Hall's urging and insistence - to promote the fire service among Baltimore's diverse communities. Surely, there are qualified blacks, Latinos and other minorities who would welcome an opportunity to join the fire service. The department should enlist the support of its minority members to begin outreach efforts now.

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