May 19, 2014

Fire departments search for ways to spark more diversity in their ranks

Fire departments nationwide, including in both Kansas Cities, are struggling to attract minority and female job candidates. Part of the problem is that central-city children seldom see fire personnel who look like them. Developing diversity is a long-term project in Madison, Wis., a leader in recruiting minorities and women.

Mayor Mark Holland was impressed by the high-quality recruits he saw at the most recent graduation of new Kansas City, Kan., firefighters.

But what Holland didn’t see concerned him: multiple black or female faces.

Of the 26 graduates that evening, none was African-American and only one was a woman.

That lack of diversity prompted Holland to ponder why and ask what can be done to recruit candidates who more closely reflect the community they will serve.

“Our kids should be clamoring for these jobs,” said Holland, who noted that a starting firefighter’s salary is one and a half times the median income for Wyandotte County. “It they’re not, then we have a recruiting problem.”

In that concern, he is not alone.

Fire departments across the country, including across the state line in Kansas City, struggle to attract minority and female candidates for career opportunities in the fire service.

Part of the problem is that when central-city children see the personnel at their neighborhood fire stations, they seldom see people who look like them, said James Garrett, a spokesman for the Kansas City Fire Department.

“They don’t see it as a viable job opportunity,” he said.

Several years ago, the International Association of Fire Fighters released a report outlining ways to achieve and retain a diverse workforce.

The report noted that nationally, while blacks made up 12.3 percent of the population, they accounted for only 8.4 percent of firefighters. The ratio and percentages were similar for Hispanics. Women, who make up more than half the population, accounted for only 5.1 percent of the nation’s firefighters.

The Kansas City Fire Department is nearly 14 percent black and 13 percent female. Hispanics make up a little more than 5 percent of the department. Kansas City’s overall population, according to the latest census figures, is about 30 percent black and 10 percent Hispanic.

In Kansas City, Kan., the Fire Department’s makeup is 7 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic and 5 percent female. Twelve men are listed as multiracial. Overall, the city’s population is about 27 percent black and 28 percent Hispanic.

Women account for more than half the population in each city.

The International Association of Fire Fighters’ diversity report found that there was often a misconception in minority communities about the nature of firefighting careers.

Some parents of prospective job candidates perceive the jobs as “strictly blue-collar and sublevel employment,” according to the report.

“Education of the potential candidate often means educating the parents as well, as to all of the advantages that your department can provide in its employment,” the report advised.

The report recommended using minority and female members as recruiters in the community, and it advised departments to emphasize a commitment to diversity in all public messages.

“Show diversity in all your advertisements, recruiting information, website, study guide and other materials,” the report recommended. “Go beyond simply stating an equal opportunity message, and describe how and why the department values inclusion and diversity.”

In its report, the international association highlighted the fire department in Madison, Wis., as the top in the country in workforce diversity.

That fact is prominently noted on the department’s website: “We are extremely pleased to be recognized for the strides we have made not only in creating a diverse workplace, but in truly valuing the individuals who are part of our department.”

At 11 percent, the percentage of black firefighters is Madison is higher than the city’s 7 percent black population. Women make up 12 percent of Madison firefighters, while the percentage of Hispanic firefighters is close to the percentage of Hispanic Madison residents, according to the department’s most recent annual report.

Developing diversity requires a long-term sustained effort, said firefighter Liza Tatar, the Madison Fire Department’s recruitment coordinator.

The department strives to reach out to schools, minority community groups and even local college and semi-pro athletes. But beyond that, she said the department also tries to give prospective employees help in developing the skills and physical aptitude needed to pass the department’s entrance test.

“We try to set them up for success,” she said. “We give them the information they need to educate themselves or learn the skills they will need to be a good firefighter.”

The department has also started Camp Hero, a partnership with the Girl Scouts to provide girls from kindergarten through high school with exposure to firefighting jobs.

The fire departments in Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., have employed a number of strategies to attract minority applicants. That includes advertising with radio stations and newspapers targeting predominantly minority audiences, placing billboards in selected neighborhoods and advertising on city buses.

But those efforts have not achieved the results officials had hoped for, officials said.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Craig Duke, a deputy KCK fire chief. “It’s very very hard for us to understand why we cannot get our department to be more reflective of the community it serves.”

Duke has made countless visits to area schools, attended job fairs and sought the help of minority firefighting organizations. The department used to have a cadet program for young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds that resulted in a number of successful hires, but budget cuts did away with the program.

Duke said that recently a young black man came by fire headquarters to inquire about a job. Duke said he enthusiastically explained to the man what kinds of classes he needed to take to qualify for the department test, but he had no idea whether the man would follow up.

“There’s an answer out there somewhere,” Duke said.

In Kansas City, the department is talking with local college officials about establishing a scholarship program for residents for training in skills such as being a paramedic. Garrett said the department wants to partner with leaders of underserved communities.

“We need to get the word out,” he said. “We need you to come in and look at this.”

Though fighting fires is the most physically demanding and high-profile aspect of what the department does, the majority of its work involves responding to medical calls, Garrett noted.

“There are such a wide range of jobs available,” he said.

In Wyandotte County, Holland has begun several initiatives to look at ways to address the problem. He also contacted the U.S. Department of Justice to help local officials develop a plan to improve diversity.

Holland said he thinks the department needs to find ways to get more young people from Wyandotte County interested. He noted that only about a fourth of the recent Fire Department hires had attended high school in the county.

Holland said he would like to work with local school districts about the possibility of developing a program for students interested in fire and police jobs, and he hopes to set up public town-hall type meetings to get the word out.

“It’s a great career with great benefits,” he said. “We need a comprehensive community recruitment effort.”

To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to trizzo@kcstar.com.

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