Fight to diversify fire departments

Cities make progress in putting minorities in fire stations, but jobdiscrimination persists.

Twenty years ago, the men who battled flames and rescued children from smoky high-rises nearly always had white faces.

Now, across the United States, a number of these soot-covered heroes are women, and many are black, Latino, or Asian-American men - largely because the courts have stepped in to remedy a history of exclusion.

Even so, the fire station remains the setting for one of the most visible, and perhaps fiercest, battles over job discrimination. Moreover, the uncertain legal climate now surrounding affirmative action has some firefighters - as well as civil rights watchdogs - concerned that departments will once again become almost exclusively white.

Allegations of bias within the ranks has recently come to the fore in Boston, where for 25 years the fire department has lived under a court order to diversify. Boston is one of 43 fire departments nationwide where such mandates are still in effect.

"Historically, fire departments were worse than police departments," says Steve Ralston, a lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York. Most were totally white, he says, and when challenged, "they weren't able to show that the tests they used [to hire and promote] adequately measured the ability to be a [firefighter]."

Boston firefighter Karen Miller routinely gets the message that she is not welcome - even 14 years after becoming the city's first African-American female firefighter. For nine years, she says, the bathroom in her station had no lock. When she used an officer's bathroom for privacy, she was reprimanded. By contrast, she says, the department provided separate bathrooms for some white female firefighters. And some men have turned down overtime to avoid working with her, without ever having met her.

THESE and other public charges of discrimination within the Boston Fire Department have led Mayor Thomas Menino to set up a commission to investigate. Fire department officials will not comment on the allegations - recently detailed in a Boston Globe series - until the commission issues its report.

To be sure, many fire departments have attained court-ordered diversity goals. Jacksonville, Fla., for example achieved a goal of 25 percent minority firefighters in 1992.

But even in these cities, there are worries ahead.

In an era when affirmative action is on shaky legal footing, "If we don't have anything in place that removes the barriers, then we'll go back to a completely lily-white fire department again that's not reflective of our community," worries Steven Rohan, a lawyer with the mayor's office in Jacksonville. But breaking down barriers without provoking reverse-discrimination lawsuits from qualified whites is proving to be a delicate task. "It's hugely difficult," he says.

White men's complaints are legitimate, says lawyer Roger Clegg at the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank in Washington. "There is something uniquely bad about telling somebody that they are going to be treated differently because of their skin color," he says.

The "consent decree" in effect in Boston mandates recruitment of African-Americans and certain categories of Hispanics. The fire department's racial composition has changed, but not enough to lift the decree. Currently, the department is about one-quarter minority, and the court order will remain in effect until minority representation reaches about 44 percent.

The tests used to assess applicants' skills also remain a hot-button issue. The court mandates a "fair" civil-service exam. Historically, such tests have had what's called a "disparate impact" on minorities, and physical requirements such as weight and height standards often disqualified women. To cut down on bias, judges said tests should be revised to measure only those skills needed to do the job.

When the state creates a group of people certified for the Boston Fire Department, it lists one top-scoring minority candidate for every top-scoring white one. While reasons must be reported for bypassing people on this list, there is no 1-to-1 hiring mandate. In other words, it's not a "quota," says Toni Wolfman, the lawyer who represents the groups protected by the decree.

White firefighters and their unions resisted from the start. In Boston, fire and police jobs were long dominated by men of Irish descent, and "there's a sense of entitlement," Ms. Wolfman says. "They claim any affirmative-action [based on race] means the appointment of people who are somehow inferior to them."

Ten years ago, Larry Mackin, a white native of the neighborhood of South Boston, who counts several police officers and firefighters among his relatives, found himself too low on the list to be hired. He challenged the policy, but the court said it was narrowly tailored and should stay in place.

Across the nation, not all policies are so immune to the charge of "reverse discrimination."

Minority-promotion goals for the Birmingham, Ala., fire department, for example, were struck down as too high.

Where policies have been overturned, the judges in the original cases sometimes took shortcuts, such as requiring "set-asides," says Christine Kramer, an affirmative-action consultant in Exeter, N.H.

One national trend in promotions is to measure communication and leadership skills rather than use written test scores alone.

Such a shift, under consideration by Boston's police department, gets strong support from Phillip Wornum, president of the Vulcan Society, a group that represents firefighters of color.

The percentage of higher-ranked minorities in the Boston Fire Department lags significantly behind that in many other cities. Some of those cities have promoted more minorities and identified men and women of all races as good managers through the assessment approach, which can reduce the likelihood of bias by tapping evaluators from outside the department, Mr. Wornum says.

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