Fire Department alters hiring policy

All-white class leads to monthly entrance test

April 23, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore City Fire Department will scrap its current hiring procedures for a rolling application process that begins June 1 with monthly testing of job candidates.

A committee is also being put together to increase recruitment for firefighting jobs.

The sweeping changes were announced yesterday, two days after The Sun reported problems with the Fire Department's recruiting efforts that led to an all-white class of recruits for the first time since the agency integrated in 1953.

In addition to the racial exclusion, of the 30 people hired and currently training in the fire academy, only five are city residents. Sixteen are from surrounding counties and nine are from Pennsylvania.

"All of us are embarrassed at the lack of communication that led to this class," O'Malley said at a news conference announcing the hiring changes.

The Fire Department has added six black people who graduated from Walbrook Uniformed Services Academy's fire training program to the academy. But they are not hired employees because they have not taken and passed the entrance test.

The new hiring process may soon be put to use. The Fire Department said it is being hit with an unusually large number of retirements this year and will likely need to hire another class in the fall.

While the city's population is 65 percent black, only 25 percent of the city's 1,700 firefighters and paramedics are racial minorities.

The mayor, who has made racial diversity in city government a cornerstone of his administration, said he did not know about the racial makeup of the class until reading the newspaper article. On Tuesday, he demanded that Fire Department's recruiting and hiring procedures be changed.

The new procedures are intended to tilt hiring preference toward city residents and increase minority candidates, the mayor said. Each month, a new crop of job candidates will become eligible.

Until now, the Fire Department has offered exams once every 18 months to three years, leaving officials with a stagnant list of candidates. After the last test in November 2002, the Fire Department said it was left with results that contained far fewer city residents and minorities than desired.

Other parts of the new procedures include:

Shifting more recruiting responsibility to the fire chief and away from the city's human resources department;

Appointing a recruiting committee by May 1 that includes members of the Fire Department, mayor's office, fire unions and fraternal organizations, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;

Starting recruiting seminars in city schools and colleges by May 15.

Using a different entrance test and speeding up the interview and background investigation portion of the process.

"Prior to this we had a blind process that led to a crisis. But the crisis has led us to opportunity," said fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr.

Earlier this week, Goodwin said he knew the recruiting problems existed two years ago but failed to fix them. "The past is the past," he said yesterday. "We have a great opportunity moving forward."

The chief said that by Sept. 1, people who have completed a certified emergency medical technician training program will not have to take the entrance test to be hired.

The city's Department of Human Resources will monitor the Fire Department's hiring efforts and participate in recruiting seminars. Human resources will also offer test-taking training for people who fail the firefighting test and want to take it again.

On Tuesday, Kweisi Mfume, president of the national NAACP, threatened lawsuits and a federal investigation of the Fire Department for hiring the racially exclusive class.

Mfume, who attended O'Malley's news conference yesterday, said what he took as a "laziness" and "aversion to testing" in the Fire Department's hiring process "I think has been addressed."

"Does this mean this is over? Absolutely not," he said. "The devil is going to be in the details in how all of this is worked out."

Mfume said the NAACP will withdraw for now its threats of lawsuits and investigations.

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