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Firefighters rightly strive to diversify

If acknowledging a problem is the first step in fixing it, Fort Wayne’s fire department is on the right track in recruiting minority firefighters. Twenty of the 22 men in the last recruit class were white, and just 11 percent of the department’s 356 firefighters are black or Hispanic, compared with about 30 percent of the city’s population.

The fire merit commission discussed the imbalance last week.

“When all the faces in that organization don’t represent what you look like, I think there’s probably sometimes … an inability to trust,” said Fire Chief Eric Lahey.

Why should the city’s fire department look like its residents? Because the department does much more than respond to fires. Fire safety and prevention are important parts of its work. Community outreach is required for the work to be done effectively, and it can best be done when members of the department know all parts of the community.

Fire service differs from other public safety jobs in that firefighters don’t just work together – they live together, eat together and sleep together. Fire departments in general have been among the last workplaces to accept gender and racial diversity for that reason.

Merit commission member Jonathan Ray suggests the department’s written exam could be a factor in disqualifying recruits.

New York City, in fact, recently paid $98 million in back pay and benefits to settle a racial bias suit. The lawsuit alleged that the department’s entrance exam had little to do with firefighting and instead focused on cognitive and reading skills. White candidates were recruited and supported throughout the application process by family or friends, and whites consistently passed while black and Hispanic candidates failed.

Addressing Fort Wayne’s own exam is a good place to start, and FWPD officials and merit commission members deserve credit for asking the right questions.