Ferguson-area fire chiefs on difficulty hiring black firefighters

By Doug Moore
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — In Hazelwood, none of the city's 36 firefighters is black although nearly a third of its residents are African-American.

In neighboring Ferguson, more than 67 percent of residents are black, compared with 7 percent of firefighters.

And in the Florissant Valley Fire Protection District, two of the 60 firefighters are black, representing 3.3 percent of the department. By comparison, more than a quarter of the residents who live in that part of the region are African-American.

The situation is the same throughout the parts of St. Louis County with large African-American populations. With the Justice Department fresh off an investigation here after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, more cities are being scrutinized for their hiring practices amid criticism that minorities are systemically underrepresented in public employment.

Fire chiefs say that there are not enough qualified black applicants and that blacks hired are hard to retain, often recruited by other departments that offer better pay and benefits in communities with fewer emergency calls.

"Even when we are fortunate to hire a minority, we don't get to hold onto them for very long," Hazelwood Fire Chief Dave Radel said. He said part of the reason for a lack of blacks on his department came from having two fire protection districts that also serve parts of his city. It doesn't take long for firefighters on mutual aid calls to begin talking and find where the better salaries are, he said.

But one of those districts — Florissant Valley — is not faring much better.

The department recently received 70 qualified applicants to test for a hiring list that is likely to go into effect in May. Fire Chief Scott Seppelt recalled one or two African-Americans among them. After a series of tests, 10 applicants made the cut. All are white.

Seppelt said his department continued to look at ways to improve diversity. Like some other departments, Florissant Valley provides training for fire and EMT programs at North Technical High School, part of the Special School District. Successful students graduate from high school with community college credits.

"We really do want to see that applicant pool change. We are open to any way we can assist in doing that," Seppelt said.

Addington Stewart is the regional leader of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, which works to encourage young African-Americans to consider the profession. Retirees with the association have for the past two months been offering free classes in test preparation for those wanting to become firefighters.

Later this year, the organization will offer tuition reimbursement to those who successfully complete emergency medical technician training.

Stewart, a retired St. Louis city fire captain, said young African-Americans didn't know much about fire service as a career because outreach had been poor. And those who are doing the hiring need to look at more ways to reach minorities. Often, job postings are made in a newspaper ad, the fire department's website or by word of mouth.

"We're not looking to blame anybody," Stewart said of the hiring practices he wants changed. "But to say they (minority applicants) are not out there is insulting to me."

Quinten Randolph agrees. He is fire chief of the Northeast Fire Protection District, which represents Normandy and parts or all of 17 other tiny communities. They range from Bel-Nor with a black population of 46.4 percent to Velda Village Hills, where 98.5 percent of its residents are African-American.

By comparison, 12 of the 30 firefighters in Northeast are black, or 40 percent.

"We as leaders can't sit back and say we can't find black firefighters. We are at the helm to change things to make fire districts look somewhat like those they serve," said Randolph, who is black. Once you build a culture of diversity in your department, then it becomes a place where people want to work, he said.

But Stewart, Randolph and those they criticize for not doing enough to change the fire department culture, all agree there are challenges that have to be addressed.

Most departments now require firefighters to be paramedics, which means additional schooling beyond graduating from the fire academy. That can put the career out of grasp for those who can't afford community college. Poverty rates in Missouri are three times higher among blacks compared with whites.

And it is required in all 42 fire districts and departments in St. Louis County that those hired must go through the county's fire academy. That includes veteran firefighters from other jurisdictions such as St. Louis, where 39 percent of firefighters are African-American.

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the requirement "reeks of structural racism."

Aroesty served as chairman of the St. Louis County Fire Standards Commission until December, when she resigned. She was appointed to the commission in the fall of 2010 by then-County Executive Charlie Dooley. She said she grew frustrated by the system, log-jammed by policies that she could not get changed.

A few years ago she and other commission members were being introduced to a cadet class.

"One gentleman stood up and said: 'I'm an 11-year vet of the St. Louis City Fire Department.' I remember thinking: 'Why can't he just get hired?' It's awful he has to go through the county academy."

The commission, which has been in place for 35 years, is made up of seven St. Louis County residents who must, among other things, pledge that every firefighter working in the county "will be trained to established standards to ensure professional, quality, and uniformed firefighting and the safety and well-being of our citizens and firefighters."

Members are appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the County Council. Aroesty's resignation makes four vacancies on the board. A spokesman for St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said those vacancies should be filled by the end of the month. A new executive director for the commission also should be in place by then.

William Pruitt is one of the remaining members of the commission. He also serves on the three-member board of the Mid-County Fire Protection District, where 22 percent of firefighters are black, serving communities where the majority of residents are African-American.

"This is just a big bugaboo," Pruitt said of hiring practices within the county. Pruitt, who is black, was hesitant to be critical of the current St. Louis County system and the required academy training.

"You can either be part of the problem or part of the solution," he said. "You can't do anything from the outside looking in. For the time being, I'd like to stay on the board and hope that things are guided in the right direction."

Aroesty is leaving the board discouraged.

"I will be honest — I did not succeed the way I hoped I would" on the commission, she said.

"Where is the political will to make these changes? The fact is fire jobs are good jobs and the challenge is you have to make the effort to go find people," she said. That includes black firefighters going out into the community to talk about their profession and instill confidence in minority candidates that "they will be respected and be successful in the job."

Stewart, with the black firefighters association, said he began looking at the racial makeup of fire departments long before Ferguson. But after Brown's shooting, he began to formally request information from the county's departments. Of the 21 departments that serve parts of St. Louis County where at least 10 percent of African-Americans live, 15 responded to Stewart's request.

Among those supplying information was Ferguson, where two of 27 firefighters are African-American serving a city where more than two-thirds of residents are black.

"Diversity has always been, and continues to be, very important and beneficial to the city of Ferguson," city spokesman Jeff Small said in an email. He said the fire department had seen very little turnover the past few years.

The city last hired firefighters in 2012. Both hires were white men, based on records from Ferguson's human resources department.

In University City, 15 percent of the firefighters are African-American, compared with 41 percent of the community. City Manager Lehman Walker said efforts were ongoing to improve minority representation throughout city departments.

"When I came here in August 2010, we had two African-American firefighters. Now we have six," said Walker. "It's very important from a city point of view that our workforce in every department reflect the demographics of the community."

Part of that effort includes putting minorities in leadership positions. Walker, who is African-American, has six department heads who report to him. They include two black men, a black woman, an Asian woman and a white woman.

Other departments with a small percentage of African-Americans say they are working to improve their numbers but are finding it a challenge.

In the Black Jack Fire Protection District, for example, an Explorer post is being started through the Boy Scouts, where firefighters mentor young people ages 14 to 21 interested in the profession. Yet at an open house last week, just one of the eight participants was African-American.

Close to 20 percent of the Black Jack district's firefighters are black. By comparison, more than 81 percent of residents of Black Jack, which composes a big chunk of the district, are African-American.

Black Jack Fire Chief Mike Gantner said the key was getting to young people as early as possible to put firefighting on the radar as a profession. He is hopeful the Explorer program and continued visits from firefighters into classrooms will increase interest — and eventually qualified applicants.

Stewart's firefighter group has been holding Monday night sessions at the O'Fallon Park Rec Complex in north St. Louis since Feb. 2. More than 50 young people have stopped in. About 15 are regulars, he said.

At a class last month, 14 young African-Americans — 12 men and 2 women — went through a two-hour session of reading exercises from a manual used to help prospective firefighters prepare for exams. Gavin Alfred, 25, of University City was one of the more engaged students.

Alfred has a few years of college under his belt, but he had to stop taking classes to take care of family. He has held a series of jobs but is looking for a career. Firefighting seems a good fit, he said.

"It's a way to give back to the community," Alfred said. "There is nothing wrong with working alongside the law and helping those in need."

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(c)2015 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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