Newest class of Lexington firefighters included no blacks, women

lack of diversity evident in latest recruit class: all white males

jkegley@herald-leader.comMarch 1, 2011 

After a publicized campaign to recruit more minorities and women, the Lexington Fire Department's most recent hiring class consisted of 25 white males.

During the past five years, five black men and four white women have graduated from the fire recruit academy out of 119 graduates, according to numbers released to the Herald-Leader by the Urban County Government.

Of the division's 525 sworn firefighters, 31 are black men and 12 are white women. There are no black female firefighters.

The lack of diversity in the most recent class has left firefighters, family members of aspiring firefighters and council members confused.

Last April, the division acknowledged that its work force was not as diverse as it should be. Fire officials stepped up minority recruiting efforts with advertisements featuring black and female firefighters on the department's Web site and by increasing their presence at career fairs and local events.

"We're trying to touch a very diverse group of people, not necessarily people that have spent their whole lives wanting to be a fireman," Battalion Chief Brent Wolffbrandt said last year.

The latest batch of recruits, sworn in Feb. 18, marked the first graduating class since at least 2007 without at least one African-American or female graduate.

"It kind of makes me feel as if we were overlooked, as if we were not a people who can be firefighters," said Doretha Duncan whose son is black and had applied recently to the department.

Duncan said several firefighters came to her church, a predominantly African-American congregation in Lexington, to recruit applicants last year. She said her son signed up, passed all written and physical tests but was not selected.

It's not clear whether diversity played a role in Mayor Jim Gray's announcement that Lexington Fire Chief Robert Hendricks was asked Monday to resign. Gray's spokeswoman, Susan Straub, declined comment, but Gray's statement cited division morale as one of his concerns in asking Hendricks to resign.

Chris Bartley, president of Lexington Professional Firefighters Local 526, said some firefighters were concerned about the lack of diversity within the department.

Bartley said the union has no say in the hiring process, but it was his belief that the 25 new hires were simply the most qualified candidates.

Bartley said "most if not all" of the new recruits had previous emergency medical technician training. New recruits get "preference points" during the hiring process for being trained EMTs or paramedics, or for having military experience, he said.

"We do want diversity as much as possible," Bartley said. "I want the best person for the job, too."

The most recent recruit class was authorized during former Mayor Jim Newberry's administration. The lack of a diversity was a concern, he said.

"It was a recurring theme that we wanted to try to be more diverse across the board," he said. "And the last class, which may be the one that just graduated — it was as you described (all male, all white) — and when we authorized their hiring that was a concern."

Urban County Council member Kevin Stinnett reacted with surprise to the fact that the new class of fire recruits was all white and all male. "Upon hearing that, I'm very disappointed," he said.

Asked whether the council had ever talked to Hendricks about the need for diversity in hiring, Stinnett said, "That goes without saying.

"We shouldn't have to. In this day and age, everybody wants a diverse work force. And we would expect the chief to want that as well."

Herald-Leader staff writer Beverly Fortune contributed to this report.

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