Firefighters seeking diversity in ranks; council should support effort

From left, firefighters Sarah McGill, Amanda Arbogast and Capt. Maria Roberts made Lexington's first all-women fire run last month.
From left, firefighters Sarah McGill, Amanda Arbogast and Capt. Maria Roberts made Lexington's first all-women fire run last month. Lexington Herald-Leader

On the morning of Sept. 5 something happened for the first time in the Lexington fire department's 233 year history: An all-women fire crew responded to a fire alarm.

Last week Keith Jackson, the first black man to ever serve as Lexington's fire chief, recognized the three firefighters involved in that historic event.

Check achieving diversity among firefighters off Lexington's to-do list, right?


Battalion Chief Joe Best rushed to recognize the all-female crew because he, and Jackson, want to send a message they fear still has not been heard: "It's a new day, the doors are open."

There has been plenty of lip service to that message in the past. In 1986 a chief retiring from a force that was almost 94 percent white male, said they'd "tried every way we could," to diversify.

In 2010, the same year an investigation was launched into allegations of sexual harassment within it, the Division of Fire and Emergency Service, said it had stepped up efforts to recruit women and minorities. By 2012, when Jackson became chief, it had diversified to 92 percent white male.

The class of 28 recruits currently training to join the force is made up of 25 white males, one black male, one Hispanic male and one white female. In other words, 89.3 percent are white and male.

Despite those less-than-heartening numbers, there are signs that Jackson is offering more than lip service to this campaign. The division ran a television commercial in Central Kentucky and Southern Ohio to attract minorities and women. This March the department's first full-time recruiter began working to attract a more diverse group of applicants, going to classrooms and churches, talking to college coaches and many others to find qualified applicants.

The early results are encouraging. Last year, when the current class was chosen, 24 black men took the initial tests, five of whom passed; two black women took the tests and neither passed; 19 white women took the test and 13 passed.

Those numbers are quite different this year: 68 black men tested, 46 passed; 10 black women tested, seven passed; 50 white women tested, 44 passed.

White men still make up a huge majority — 707 were tested this year and 541 passed — but we're seeing real progress.

Now is an important moment to finally make strides. The division is rebuilding, growing from 482 last year to 547 now, toward a full staff of 561. Additionally, retirements will diminish the numbers in the next few years; almost 10 percent of current firefighters have 20 or more years of service.

In a few years there will be many new faces at Lexington's Division of Fire and Emergency Services.

It's incumbent upon the mayor and the Urban County Council, indeed the entire community, to be sure those faces look more like the community itself. They must challenge Jackson and his executive staff to keep pushing.

But that challenge comes with a real dollar cost. Jackson's decision to devote an entire position to recruiting, to training the recruiter, paying for travel, producing a commercial and other materials, and tracking the effectiveness of different forms of outreach means taking money from other priorities.

In the next budget cycle the mayor and the council need to put money where before there has only been lip service.