How Fire Departments Could Look Like the Communities They Serve

Cities have struggled with diversity in the fire service for decades. But there's a lot they could be doing to improve things.
by | November 30, 2016

Samuel Johnson Jr.

Chief public information officer for the Baltimore Fire Department

In October, President Obama signed an executive order establishing an initiative to promote diversity in the federal workforce, focusing particularly on the national-security agencies that lag well behind other agencies in their employment of minorities. Obama said he hoped that the initiative would trickle down to state and local law-enforcement agencies, accelerating their efforts to become more inclusive of the communities they protect.

But there is another group within the public-safety ranks that has long been plagued with low minority representation: the fire service. Blacks make up 7.2 percent of the fire service's 295,600 uniformed members, while 9.4 percent are Hispanic and women account for only 3.8 percent, according to statistics compiled by the National Fire Protection Association between 2008 and 2012.

Earlier this year, a Chicago labor organization representing African-American firefighters and paramedics called on the Justice Department to investigate the hiring and disciplinary practices of the city's fire department, which has been sued numerous times and ordered by judges to be more racially inclusive.

Chicago is far from alone. Fire departments across the country have struggled with the recruitment and hiring of minorities for decades. When the New York City fire department offered a firefighter entrance exam in 1988, for example, of the 15,000 people who took the exam 1,600 were African-Americans, just 10.6 percent of the applicant pool. Of the 5,000 with the top scores that made them eligible to continue in the process, only 112, or 2.2 percent, were African-Americans. Over the next few years, the city hired 2,256 firefighters from that list. Only 29 were black -- 1.3 percent of those hired. And in 2013, a two-person Baltimore fire department division that had been developed two years earlier to increase recruitment among minority residents of the city and combat racial tensions within the department's ranks was eliminated in a round of budget cutbacks.

It's no secret that fire departments in many cities don't much resemble the communities they serve. In areas that have a high concentration of poverty, many fire departments are comprised primarily of members who live outside of the jurisdictions they serve and don't have a vested interest in the municipalities where they work. And as the number of fires has declined over recent decades, so has many fire departments' community involvement. In most large cities, many residents now have interactions with members of the fire service only when they dial 911, typically for a medical emergency.

What can be done to turn this situation around? For fire departments that want to diversify their ranks, one critical component of the solution is a new emphasis on community engagement aimed at creating a pipeline of future applicants. Initiatives like adopt-a-school and fire cadet programs, for example, offer youths and young adults opportunities to interact with fire personnel in non-emergency environments and learn about the jobs of firefighters and emergency medical staff.

Another aspect of this kind of engagement is to take a page from rural areas and small towns, where the firehouse often serves as a centerpiece of the community. That was the approach a year ago in Baltimore, where the fire department set out to shift the paradigm on how it recruits members from the community and minority groups.

Deploying a diverse group of department personnel, the department made itself visible in all of the city's communities, hosting open houses and inviting residents in to speak with members of the fire service. Residents were able to view live demonstrations of emergency-response procedures. A local radio station promoted the recruitment initiative and publicized the sites where people could go to apply. The department placed computers in fire stations to make it easier for residents without access to technology to fill out online applications. Fire personnel handed out recruitment literature at community meetings and conducted presentations at college career days and career-development centers.

Those efforts paid off big-time. Applications from city residents increased by 142 percent, from 1,000 in 2009 to 2,425 in 2015, and applications from minorities increased 207 percent, from 1,230 to 3,781.

Too often when fire-department administrators are asked about the disparity in applicant turnout, you hear the same shopworn reply: We try to recruit members of local minority groups but they aren't interested in the fire service. Baltimore's proactive efforts have dispelled that myth. Not only is Baltimore's approach one that would work for other cities, but it underlines a fundamental truth about diversity in the public workforce: It's about developing a consciously inclusive environment that recognizes the value of having representation of people from all walks of life.

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VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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