New fire chief says diversity to be priority

Very few blacks, women among uniformed ranks


October 31, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

New Annapolis fire Chief Michael Patrick Lonergan is pledging to make racial diversity and hiring practices his most pressing goal for a department where the scarcity of minority and female firefighters remains a simmering issue.

"This will be a very inclusive department," said Lonergan, who was confirmed by the Annapolis city council this week on a 6-3 vote that divided along racial lines. Democratic Aldermen Cynthia Carter, George O. Kelley Sr. and Classie Gillis Hoyle -- all of whom are African-Americans -- voted against the confirmation.

Lonergan added, "We have to make and take every opportunity to diversify the department. We need to reach out and recruit [minorities] more actively."

The department has been embroiled in criticism over minority hiring for nearly two decades, since a 1985 class action lawsuit by the Black Firefighters Association led to a consent degree under which the city agreed to increase minority hiring.

But some black officials and firefighters have criticized the county's compliance with that agreement and voiced concern about what they described as a racist climate in the department.

A task force formed by Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said in June that the department failed to show a "meaningful commitment" to minorities during the past two decades.

Carter said she and the others who voted against Lonergan's confirmation did so to register disapproval of the department's demographics.

"That consent decree has never been complied with, with so few African-American firefighters," she said. "The vote was a statement of displeasure that they have not put a minority into a management position."

Lonergan, an Eastport native and resident, succeeds former Chief Edward P. Sherlock Jr. He has been acting chief since June 1.

He started his firefighting career 28 years ago with the Annapolis department, rising through the ranks from city fireboat company officer to battalion chief before his appointment to the post by the mayor.

"I prefer to hire from within if possible, and he has great respect in the community," Moyer said.

The new chief said that city aldermen who criticize the Fire Department as a white male domain have a point. Of the department's, 98 uniformed employees, there are eight black male firefighters and only a few women, he said.

But greater integration of the department is a personal mandate, he said.

Lonergan said the department will seek to recruit applicants from Prince George's and Montgomery counties. In a policy shift, he said the department would not go by strict numerical test scores to screen applicants and would work with candidates to help them pass the requirements to enter the firefighter academy.

Physicals will be weighted toward simulating actual fire emergency work, rather than tests of upper-body strength such as push-ups, he added.

"We'll look at the whole person, and whether he or she is a team player," Lonergan said. "Firefighters have to work well together or somebody's not going to make it out of a burning house."

Deadly fires are the part of the job that Lonergan said he carries with him the longest.

"You never get numb to it," he said.

The Annapolis Fire Department has a budget of about $8.5 million. In addition to its firefighting and emergency medical service duties, the department -- which has a bomb squad -- also coordinates and participates in homeland security disaster drills with the Anne Arundel County and Naval Academy fire departments, Lonergan said.

The father of three said his appointment to the top job in the department came as a surprise.

"This was not in my furthest sights. I always had my mind on the next spot and did the best job at the time," he said.

"It's an awesome responsibility, and I'm humbled and grateful."

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