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NAACP leader calls for more diversity among Austin firefighters

Wednesday, October 1, 2008 by Austin Monitor

The leader of the Austin chapter of the NAACP on Tuesday called for the Austin Fire Department to increase the number of African-American firefighters within the department. Joining NAACP President Nelson Linder were some current and former Austin firefighters, who said the department was falling behind in its efforts to recruit African Americans.

 

They provided figures for the department’s 111th cadet class, which recently began training, showing that while 178 African American applicants had passed the written exam, none are in the current class. Additional figures provided by the City of Austin on Tuesday show the 111th cadet class has 35 members, of which six are Hispanic, one is Asian-American, and two are classified as “other”. Those figures also show the department’s 112th cadet class, which is also currently underway, has 20 members. In that class, there are three Hispanics, one Asian American, one classified as “other”, and one African American.

 

“The NAACP has a history of addressing these kinds of issues,” said Linder. “The city must show a much greater resolve and try to come up with solutions to these issues. It’s not that complicated.” Linder said the organization’s recourse would be to file a complaint with the federal government under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination by programs receiving federal funds. “This has been a ‘good old boy’ system for too long. We have no other choice but to address it,” he said.

 

The criticism of AFD comes as the department’s contract with the Austin Firefighters Association expires. That contract governs recruiting and hiring procedures and does allow for some variation to state civil service laws. In addition to the physical test and written test, candidates must undergo several other tests (http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/fire/hirsum.htm) before making the cadet class.

 

 “We have oral exams, we have background investigations, medical physicals, psychological evaluations.” said Bobby Johns, president of the African American Firefighters Association. “Somewhere after the oral board and the hiring date, we’re losing African Americans.” He did not specify which portion of the process he felt was discriminatory, but said, “until we start getting more information from the department, we won’t know where those disparities are.”

 

That association’s former president, Ray Hendricks, said he was disappointed that the department had not made more progress during his tenure with the department. Hendricks was with the department from 1979 to 2003.

 

“At the end of my six months of training, we had 52 African-Americans in the department. Though we are addressing the disproportionalities that exist today and that’s a good thing, it’s sad to look back and say we only have 57 thirty years later,” he said. “Someone not attached with the City of Austin needs to come in and take a good look at what’s going on with the Austin Fire Department. There’s something wrong with the system. The system needs to be fixed.”

 

AFD does have a program in place to recruit applicants from diverse backgrounds, which includes a diversity council. The department instituted a diversity training program last year for all members. AFD figures show that for the two previous cadet classes in 2007, approximately 25 percent of the graduates were minorities. Department officials also hope the Fire Academy at LBJ High School will lead to an increase in the number of minority applicants from within the community.

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