Recruiting new firefighters should be done year-round and be more focused on attracting minority candidates if the Kansas City Fire Department is serious about diversifying its workforce, the president of a group representing Black firefighters told the City Council Thursday.
“Historically, recruiting minorities has been a low priority,” said Sylvia Brown, who heads EFFECT, the local unit affiliated with the International Association of Black Fire Fighters.
The recruitment effort for new cadets now lasts a few months every couple of years and is done by department employees with little expertise in how to attract a diverse workforce, she said.
To better address the under-representation of Black firefighters in the department, Brown told the council, EFFECT believes that recruitment should be the responsibility of a full-time unit staffed with people who are committed to engaging directly with the Black community.
“We must demand better,” she said.
Brown’s remarks come as the department is in the midst of choosing a new consultant to overhaul the department’s hiring process, and as the city is beginning to address concerns about systemic racism within KCFD that were raised by The Star in a series of articles published several months ago.
In a city in which nearly 30 percent of the population is Black, less than 14 percent of firefighters are, and even fewer Black men and women are captains and above, the newspaper found.
Some of that is due to what Brown said are lackluster recruitment efforts and impediments that lead to Black recruits not making it through the hiring process.
EFFECT stands for Equality for Firefighters through Education, Community Service and Training. Brown said the group has been trying to get more Black people onto the department by helping them vault some of the barriers they face, through education and counseling.
A number of minority candidates wash out, she said, because they fail the written aptitude and physical agility tests, or don’t complete their certifications for emergency medical services or hazardous material operations.
Some of them have been out of school awhile and are not experienced test takers. EFFECT has over the last couple of years tried to address that by helping candidates prepare for exams, become more knowledgeable about the fire service and mentor them with what she called a “shadow buddy program.”
Brown urged the department to formally incorporate EFFECT’s program into its own recruitment practices.
Fire Chief Donna Lake didn’t directly address that point when it came her turn to speak to the council but said the department is working on a new mentorship program. Tim Dupin, president of the firefighters union, Local 42, praised EFFECT’s cadet employment preparation program and said the union helps underwrite it.
Brown’s hour-long presentation and the brief discussion that followed also touched on the need for a zero tolerance policy when it comes to racist acts within the department, such as when a white recruit in 2019 tossed a noose over the head of a Black cadet at the fire academy. The Star previously reported on the incident and EFFECT’s disappointment that the white man was allowed to resigned rather than being fired.
Brown said that from now on such incidents should be dealt with severely and more swiftly.
City Manager Brian Platt said the city and Local 42 are working to address a number of issues related to diversity through contract negotiations that may become public in the next several weeks.