Same old excuses about diversity; firefighting hiring has sad history

In 1986, when Lexington Fire Chief Earl McDaniel retired, one of the criticisms of his long and generally well-regarded tenure was lack of diversity within the department.

At that time, the force of 408 included one female firefighter and 25 black males, including one captain and three lieutenants.

Those weak numbers existed despite the fact, McDaniel said, that the force "tried every way we could" to recruit a more diverse work force.

Now 26 years later, there are 482 firefighters, including 23 black men (among them interim Chief Keith Jackson), 12 white women, one American Indian, one Pacific Islander and one Hispanic. There are no black women.

This, despite the Division of Fire and Emergency Service's assertions in 2010 that it had stepped up diversity efforts by, among other things, including minority and female firefighters in the photos on its Web site.

Given this history, why is anyone surprised, much less outraged, that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the department's employment practices?

The fire department has literally had a generation to nurture a more diverse group of firefighters in the years since McDaniel retired. That little has been achieved in that area indicates management has either been stunningly incompetent or hasn't really tried.

Another theme that spans the quarter century are allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination. In 1986, the department was the subject of a federal lawsuit and complaints with local, state and federal equal opportunity offices brought by two different women alleging mistreatment.

In 2010 the city launched an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment in the division.

After the story ran about the Justice Department investigation much of the online chatter had a bitter tone, asserting the department was only hiring the most-qualified applicants and they happened to be white men. The trouble with that argument is that almost all the applicants also happen to be white men.

Changing the demographic makeup of the department will require a thoughtful, strategic effort and profound commitment from the upper levels of management to recruiting a broader range of applicants. That's the message from other departments that have undertaken the task.

An official at the fire department in Hickory, N.C. studied how fire departments have dealt with this issue and wrote a paper about his findings for the National Fire Academy.

Most of the programs cited involved reaching out to a diverse group of young people, some as young as 14, and connecting those interested in a career in firefighting with training programs, internships and mentors. Some departments direct young women to an annual camp where girls 16 to 19 can learn firefighting.

Why do we care about diversity within the department, other than to avoid interference from the federal government?

For one reason, it's just the right thing. No one should be denied the same chance to serve the community as anyone else.

For another, government relies on the support of citizens to do its work, and a public service sector that doesn't reflect the diversity of the community will struggle to maintain that support.

Finally, it's deeply disrespectful to the tens of thousands of women and minorities who have given their lives for this country, state and city (the last firefighter to die in action was Brenda Cowan, a black woman) to suggest that others like them just aren't good enough to serve.