Lexington fire department's hiring practices under federal investigation

bfortune@herald-leader.comApril 30, 2012 

Firefighter John Davis, 49, of the Lexington Fire Department applied a warning sticker to a Lexington fire truck at Central Fire Station on East Third Street last summer. The sticker was part of a campaign to prevent heat deaths.

HANNAH POTES | STAFF FILE PHOTO

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Lexington fire department's employment practices, city officials confirmed Monday.

"The city was made aware of the investigation in early April. Federal officials have our full cooperation and we welcome their investigation," city spokeswoman Susan Straub said in a written statement.

"They have told us they treat investigations of this type as confidential, and we will follow their ground rules," the statement said.

Straub provided no further details. A spokesperson for the Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

Chris Bartley, president of the Lexington Professional Firefighters Local 526, said he was unaware of the Justice Department's investigation until he received a reporter's phone call Monday.

Diversity in the ranks of Lexington's firefighters has been a topic of public concern for several years.

Only five black men and four white women have been among the 119 graduates of the fire recruit academy over the previous six years.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reported in March 2011 that the most recent class of firefighter recruits, who graduated in February 2011, consisted of 25 white men despite a much-publicized campaign to recruit more minorities and women.

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

Since then, the number of sworn firefighters has dropped to 482. Of that number, 23 are black men, including interim Chief Keith Jackson. Twelve firefighters are white women, one is American Indian, one is Pacific Islander and one is Hispanic, Assistant Chief Ed Davis said.

A new class of 26 firefighters begins 18 weeks of training on Tuesday. That class includes one black woman and one black man. The remainder are white men, Davis said.

The Lexington Division of Fire and Emergency Services acknowledged in April 2010 that its work force was not as diverse as it should be. At the time, fire officials said they had stepped up minority recruiting, with advertisements showing black and female firefighters on the department's Web site and by increasing their presence at career fairs and local events.

Jackson, a 20-year veteran of the fire department, was named interim chief on March 9, 2011, after Mayor Jim Gray asked former fire Chief Robert Hendricks to resign.

Gray had expressed concerns about Hendricks' failure to manage the division's budget — in particular, significant overtime expense for firefighters — and division morale and a lack of leadership.

In January, Gray announced that the city planned to hire 25 firefighters to help fill vacant positions created after about 40 firefighters retired in 2011.

"This class also has some ethnic diversity," Davis said of the new recruits. "It's not all Kentucky white boys, but has people who hail from other parts of the country."

Bartley said the union supports "as much diversity as possible in hiring practices, but we have nothing to do with the hiring practices of the city."

Gray has allocated money for two more fire recruit classes in his proposed budget for fiscal 2013, which begins July 1. That proposal has not yet been reviewed or approved by the Urban County Council.

Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251. Twitter: @BFortune2010.

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