Kan. Fire Departments Seek More Diversity in Ranks

Kansas officials are concerned about the lack of minorities and women in the firefighting ranks and believe there may be a recruiting problem.

May 20--Mayor Mark Holland was impressed by the high-quality recruits he saw at the most recent graduation of new Kansas City, Kan., firefighters.

But what Holland didn't see concerned him: multiple black or female faces.

Of the 26 graduates that evening, none was African-American and only one was a woman.

That lack of diversity prompted Holland to ponder why and ask what can be done to recruit candidates who more closely reflect the community they will serve.

"Our kids should be clamoring for these jobs," said Holland, who noted that a starting firefighter's salary is one and a half times the median income for Wyandotte County. "It they're not, then we have a recruiting problem."

In that concern, he is not alone.

Fire departments across the country, including across the state line in Kansas City, struggle to attract minority and female candidates for career opportunities in the fire service.

Part of the problem is that when central-city children see the personnel at their neighborhood fire stations, they seldom see people who look like them, said James Garrett, a spokesman for the Kansas City Fire Department.

"They don't see it as a viable job opportunity," he said.

Several years ago, the International Association of Fire Fighters released a report outlining ways to achieve and retain a diverse workforce.

The report noted that nationally, while blacks made up 12.3 percent of the population, they accounted for only 8.4 percent of firefighters. The ratio and percentages were similar for Hispanics. Women, who make up more than half the population, accounted for only 5.1 percent of the nation's firefighters.

The Kansas City Fire Department is nearly 14 percent black and 13 percent female. Hispanics make up a little more than 5 percent of the department. Kansas City's overall population, according to the latest census figures, is about 30 percent black and 10 percent Hispanic.

In Kansas City, Kan., the Fire Department's makeup is 7 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic and 5 percent female. Twelve men are listed as multiracial. Overall, the city's population is about 27 percent black and 28 percent Hispanic.

Women account for more than half the population in each city.

The International Association of Fire Fighters' diversity report found that there was often a misconception in minority communities about the nature of firefighting careers.

Some parents of prospective job candidates perceive the jobs as "strictly blue-collar and sublevel employment," according to the report.

"Education of the potential candidate often means educating the parents as well, as to all of the advantages that your department can provide in its employment," the report advised.

The report recommended using minority and female members as recruiters in the community, and it advised departments to emphasize a commitment to diversity in all public messages.

"Show diversity in all your advertisements, recruiting information, website, study guide and other materials," the report recommended. "Go beyond simply stating an equal opportunity message, and describe how and why the department values inclusion and diversity."

In its report, the international association highlighted the fire department in Madison, Wis., as the top in the country in workforce diversity.

That fact is prominently noted on the department's website: "We are extremely pleased to be recognized for the strides we have made not only in creating a diverse workplace, but in truly valuing the individuals who are part of our department."

At 11 percent, the percentage of black firefighters is Madison is higher than the city's 7 percent black population. Women make up 12 percent of Madison firefighters, while the percentage of Hispanic firefighters is close to the percentage of Hispanic Madison residents, according to the department's most recent annual report.

Developing diversity requires a long-term sustained effort, said firefighter Liza Tatar, the Madison Fire Department's recruitment coordinator.

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