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Boston Fire Department hiring few people of color

Officials cite state veteran’s preference law

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Boston Fire Department hiring few people of color
City of Boston Chief Diversity Officer Danielson Tavares, Boston Fire Department Diversity Officer Juan Sanchez, Deputy Commissioner for Labor Relations Connie Wong and Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn.

A recent letter from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice ratcheted up attention on the Boston Fire Department’s low diversity numbers.

Since 2011, people of color have comprised half or more of Boston’s population, but to date, only 25 percent of the fire department is non-white, according to a letter the Lawyers’ Committee sent to Mayor Martin Walsh and Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn. And diversity seems set to decline, with 90 percent of new firefighters brought on under Walsh being white, and many minority firefighters nearing retirement age, the letter stated.

The Lawyers’ Committee is demanding action, outlining several policy recommendations formulated in conjunction with the Boston Society of Vulcans and suggesting that failing to take up these policies could constitute a violation of federal law. Should a court find that an public agency’s practices — for instance, its hiring policies — produce disparate impact, and that the agency had available but did not choose to use alternatives that are less discriminatory and do not impede meeting business needs, the court may rule that this violates anti-discrimination law.

The Boston Society of Vulcans is a nonprofit organization of Black and Latino firefighters with a mission to empower urban Boston residents to pursue public safety careers.

Commissioner Finn, along with Danielson Tavares, the city’s chief diversity officer, Juan Sanchez, the fire department’s diversity officer, and Connie Wong, fire department deputy commissioner for labor relations, human resources and legal affairs, met with the Banner at the Boston Fire Department headquarters on Monday. During the meeting, officials said that their hiring practices are tightly constricted by state law but that they seek to boost diversity and will take action on several initiatives, including some of the Lawyers’ Committee proposals.

While people of color make up 50 percent of Boston’s population, they account for just 25 percent of those employed by the Boston Fire Department.

Civil service list and language preferences

When the Boston Fire Department hires its next batch of recruits, it will select names from a ranked state-created list of eligible applicants. Those who pass an entrance exam are ranked in order of preferential status, and then, within each preference category, in order of test scores. Only after every member of the top preference category is hired (or bypassed for a valid reason) may members of the second-highest preference category be considered, and so on.

Top hiring priority goes to applicants who are the children of firefighters or police killed in the line of duty, followed by children of firefighters or police completely disabled in the line of duty — such as firefighters paralyzed from being caught in a collapsing building. These are rare eventualities and the latest list had only three people in these categories combined, Finn said. Next, preference goes to disabled veterans and then veterans. Only after every eligible veteran is hired do the most promising general category applicants get consideration.

A typical recruit class is 50 people, Finn said, although this year’s group will number 65 in an effort to compensate for the number of officers aging out. With hundreds of applicants for tens of spots, non-military applicants have essentially no chance.

“In a class of 50, there’s not a lot of people getting in,” Sanchez said. “We’re talking 500 veterans and 200 DAVs [disabled veterans] applying for one class.”

In phone conversation with the Banner last week, Tavares said if civil service-determined hiring were ignored, 49 percent of city hires for full-time positions would be nonwhite.

The Lawyers’ Committee letter states that the cultural and linguistic gaps expected from a non-diverse fire department places a barrier to most effective communication and collaboration with Boston’s diverse communities, and proposes using a preference category for those with multilingual skills.

A provision in the civil service law permits such preferences, provided that for each year the BFD seeks to utilize the provision, it makes a case to the state that there is demonstrable need. Finn said he intends to activate the provision for the next hiring class, but warned that in the past it had not always helped diversity. In 2011, a Spanish-fluency preference resulted in the hiring of white male candidates, Finn and Wong said.

Finn suggested a language preference may produce additional ranking within veteran categories, and said on the latest list there were 14 disabled veterans with self-declared Haitian, Spanish or Chinese fluency and 19 regular-category veterans with Korean, Spanish, Cantonese, French or Haitian fluency.

Cadet program suggested

One diversifying tool was removed in the early 2000s, when a group of white applicants who had consistently attained top scores on the entrance exam successfully challenged in federal appeals court the fire department’s adherence to a consent decree that had governed hiring since the 1970s, Finn said. The court ruled against use of the consent decree, stating that the BFD need not be reflective of the city population as a whole, only the population eligible to be firefighters — those between ages 19 and 65.

The Lawyers’ Committee and Vulcans suggested introduction of a cadet program to boost diversity at the entry level. Under the Boston Police Department’s cadet program, cadets are given preference so that they may constitute one-third of the recruit class. Tavares previously told the Banner that while there are no diversity goals for cadet classes, the selection drew from a diverse pool of Boston applicants.

There are obstacles to the Fire Department following suit, however. Finn said that recent state laws establish veterans as a protected class, creating a legally tricky situation for measures — such as a fire cadet program — that could be considered advancing another group at veterans’ expense.

“Veterans are preferenced and protected under the laws as much as nonwhites,” Finn said.

The police department was able to enact its cadet program because it simply was restoring funding to a program that has been on the books. The Fire Department would have to establish theirs from scratch, opening it to potential legal challenges, according to Finn.

Further initiatives

A current law prioritizes those who have lived in Boston for one year prior to their taking the civil service exam over non-city-residents, though children of killed or disabled police or fire officers are excepted. The BFD representatives at last week’s gathering, along with the Lawyers’ Committee in its letter, expressed support of a measure that would expand the Boston residency preference from one to three years. City Councilor Michael Flaherty proposed this measure in 2014, but it was vetoed by Walsh, who said he would refile it. The mayor now has included the measure in a legislative package, passing the matter along to the state, Tavares said.

Sanchez, who took up his diversity officer role at the fire department in May, says he aims to boost the number of minority applicants through measures such as increasing career opportunity awareness among veterans and providing waivers to the $250 exam fee. He expressed interest in partnering with the Vulcans.

Sanchez said he is collaborating with the Veterans Affairs Office to connect with minority veteran groups and hold monthly sessions in different neighborhoods to spread information on fire department options and exams. In development now is a “Soldier for Life” program under which military members from Massachusetts who are in the process of transitioning to civilian life would be advised on fire internship opportunities, Sanchez said. The pilot program will be limited to the army.

Several programs currently in place aim to increase high school youth awareness of fire fighting as a career opportunity, Wong said. Finn said that while he is reluctant to advise children into a dangerous career, under the current system, joining the military is the pathway to become a firefighter.

“We need to educate minority youth on the benefits of being a veteran, and this is how to be a Boston firefighter,” Finn said.

The city also is discussing diversification strategies with other municipalities’ fire departments but has yet to find a model they wish to copy, Tavares told the Banner in a phone conversation.