In the wake of an investigation that uncovered a lack of diversity in the Baltimore City Fire Department, the unit’s chief announced it will revive its partnership with the NAACP – and this time make it “continuous.”

“What my goal is, is to make sure this job is available to as many Baltimoreans as possible,” Fire Chief Jim Clack said at a recent press briefing.

He wants 60 percent more minorities to join the unit. The service is currently 87 percent male with 34 percent racial minorities. Of those minorities, 94 percent are Black and 120 are Black women. A little over 1 percent are Latino. In the newest class – which graduates next month – all 45 cadets are White men except five who are Black and three who are women.

The fire department is teaming up with the NAACP, and other minority leaders, for a second time to adjust recruitment techniques and energize minorities to sign up. Fire officials first called on the organization in 2004 after the unit came under fire for graduating an all White class.

Clack said that partnership was simply to ensure the subsequent class was more diverse, but was not incorporated into the department’s routine recruitment efforts. The newly announced partnership will be more long-term, he said.

“This will not be just one time. Every time we recruit, we want to involve the NAACP,” he told the AFRO.

NAACP President Tessa Hill-Aston said she will lead a taskforce – which will include members from the Urban League, the Black fire firefighter union and the fire department – to implement an aggressive recruitment strategy in city schools.

They plan to visit middle and high schools to promote firefighting as a career and train interested candidates for the aptitude test. Hill-Aston said they’ll also tap faith-based organizations, including the New Fellowship Christian Church, to help identify potential applicants and implement a fire preparatory program via a $15,000 grant they expect to receive.

She said minorities might not be applying to the department because of fear or a lack of physical endurance necessary to pass the fire drills.

Clack told WBAL TV, which first launched an investigation into the unit’s diversity issues, that the department recently enforced a new, more rigorous agility test, required before entering the academy, after a Black woman died during a training exercise in 2007. The woman, 29-year-old Rachel Wilson, had failed two physical endurance checks but was still allowed to continue training.

“There were some accommodations made to ensure the cadets were diverse, but that led us to a tragedy where physical endurance and strength was secondary or even third place behind other considerations,” he told WBAL.

Henry Burris, president of the Vulcan Blazers Black Fire Fighters Union, said, although he works closely with the fire unit, he does not believe they actively seek diversity in their ranks. “There is a lack of recruitment nationwide, and there is evidence of institutional racism,” he told the {AFRO}. “The fire departments were not hiring Blacks until many of them were forced to under court rulings.”

After pressure from the Urban League and the NAACP in the early 1950s, then Baltimore Mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro Jr., father of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, demanded the fire department’s board of commissioners integrate the BCFD.

The city’s police department had accepted Blacks 15 years earlier, but the all-White panel of fire officials argued that conditions were much too intimate among fire fighters who lived and ate together, said Burris.

After at least two years of pushback, 10 Blacks were allowed to join the fire department’s training academy in October 1953. Black participation swelled to 20 during one class in 1954, but Blacks still combated discrimination, including segregated beds and toilets. Many weren’t allowed to use the same utensils, cups or even read the same newspapers as their White colleagues.

They also were banned from joining the union until a group of Black firefighters challenged and eventually won the right to integrate it in circuit court in 1971. In a separate case, Black Baltimore firefighters filed a discrimination suit, the first case of its kind won against a U.S. fire service.

The Vulcan Blazers was established just prior to the victory.

According to Burris, inequity prevails in the fire department, as he says Black firefighters are often disciplined more severely than Whites and are less likely to receive promotions. “I would hope that everyone that is coming to the table (for this collaboration) will prevent this from just being a photo opportunity,” he said. “Instead, it should become a meaningful partnership for those who were present and those who will join in the future to bring about diversity in the fire department that in some way reflects the demographics of the city.”


Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO