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Racial diversity an elusive goal for firefighters

Recruiting efforts haven’t given department a face like the city’s

– Fort Wayne is a diverse city, and Fire Chief Eric Lahey hopes his department will one day better reflect the city it serves.

“How do we have diversity in the fire department that represents our city?” fire merit commission member Jonathan Ray asked at the commission’s meeting this week.

Despite attempts to recruit more minority cadets in each training class, the department continues to see a majority of white applicants, thereby leading to a department with demographics different from those of Fort Wayne.

It’s not a problem with an easy fix, and a committee study of several months will likely be the first step.

The department currently has 356 firefighters, not including its civilian staff. Of those, 341 are men and 15 are women.

In terms of race, 316 are white, 27 black, six Hispanic, five Asian, one Pacific Islander and one other, according to Stacey Fleming, public information officer for the department.

In the department’s newest graduating class, there were 22 men, 20 of whom were white, one who was black and one who was Asian..

In 2010, just more than half the city’s population was female; only 70 percent of the population said they were white and had no Hispanic or Latino ancestry.

“When all the faces in that organization don’t represent what you look like, I think there’s probably sometimes … an inability to trust,” Lahey said, describing how a more diverse and representative department could improve community relations.

Lahey knows firsthand the difficulty in broadening the recruitment pool, having been one of those tasked about 10 years ago with getting the word out about the department’s new recruit class.

“We went door to door to every small business, every barbershop, every community center, every church we could find” in all parts of the city, he said after this week’s meeting.

Turns out, the efforts were futile. More than 900 applicants showed up for the first round of written tests, but fewer than 100 were minorities.

In light of that attempt to recruit, the most important question for the department to answer is why minorities don’t apply.

Classroom work, practical exercises, written exams and physical fitness requirements are all part of what a cadet must complete to make it to the rank of firefighter, but Ray wondered whether some of those procedures were the reason that more whites get hired than minorities.

He specifically pointed to the potential for racial bias in some written exams.

“I think the process is obviously hindering it,” Ray said in an interview.

Jeremy Bush, president of the Fort Wayne Professional Firefighters Local 124,, mentioned a committee approach to the issue at the merit commission meeting.

He said it could take six months to a year before a new process was in place.

To Ray, any progress in dialogue is hopeful.

cmeyers@jg.net

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