Upstate New York Fire Dept. Hasn't Had Black Firefighter In Nearly A Decade; City Turns To Clergy For Help

SCHENECTADY -- As city officials confront questions over why the Fire Department has not had a black firefighter in nearly a decade, the leaders of several city churches are preparing to use their pulpits to sell young black and Hispanic parishioners on careers as firefighters.

"The basic goal is simply to raise the number who take the (civil service) test," said the Rev. Phil Grigsby of Schenectady Inner City Ministries. "The emphasis is simply getting a large number to take the test."

Grigsby was one of several ministers who attended a news conference Thursday when Mayor Brian U. Stratton touted efforts to push minority hiring in the Fire Department. The next civil service test for firefighters will be June 4.

City Hall is about to begin recruitment meetings and study sessions to help candidates prepare.

The Police Department mounted a similar recruitment drive last year and also received assistance from church leaders. City Hall said a record 265 people took the police civil service test Dec. 4, and about 50 were minorities and women.

The Rev. Van Stuart of Friendship Baptist Church said he and other ministers plan to open their churches to Stratton, Fire Chief Robert Farstad and other city officials so they can speak to parishioners.

Stuart said it was important to convince blacks and Hispanics of the opportunities provided by civil service jobs like those in the police and fire departments.

"There is still a bright future for us here," he said.

The issue jumped to the fore last month when City Councilman Joseph Allen complained Schenectady, a city with 9,000 blacks, had not employed a black firefighter since 1995. Allen criticized Farstad at the time for suggesting that women count as minority hires and then blasted Stratton, a fellow Democrat, for calling his criticism unfair.

Allen in recent days has also squared off with Stratton over whether the city should open the troubled Quackenbush Pool, the scene of a drowning last summer.

But Thursday, Stratton welcomed Allen to the news conference, calling him a "lightening rod" that brought attention to the dearth of minorities in the Fire Department, which employs 115.