Albany (N.Y.) Fire Chief Robert Forezzi is pulling out all the stops and getting creative in efforts to recruit minorities and diversify the department.
From handing out fliers on street corners to pushing for a high school class to train emergency medical technicians, fire officials hope for a good turnout at a June Civil Service firefighters exam, the first one in two years.
"It's a continuing saga," the chief said last week. "Our goal is to recruit and retain a diverse fire service. We believe it's important that the Albany Fire Department's members reflect the citizens it serves."
Current minority makeup of the department includes eight blacks, one of whom is a paramedic lieutenant, two Latinos and six women, including four lieutenants. Full strength is 260 members, but 19 vacancies exist, bringing the department's current overall size down to 241.
That translates into a department makeup that is just 3.3 percent black. Taking all 16 minorities into account, they represent 6.6 percent.
The city's ethnic makeup is 63 percent white, 28.1 percent black and 9 percent other, according to City Hall figures.
The new test is set for June 14, but applications must be in by May 16. The exam is open to anyone, any age. Those wishing to prep for it can do so at a class on May 17.
Starting pay for a firefighter/EMT is $35,523 annually. Paramedic/firefighters start at $36,685. Yearly increments bring the top grade after five years to $56,441.
"Our inability to recruit minority members is not from lack of recruitment, but could be from lack of interest," and awareness, said Forezzi, chief since October 2006.
"I'd like to see minorities around 30 percent," he said. "That would be a diverse fire department," and would translate to 78 total.
After the 9/11 attacks, firefighters were the new heroes, but that apparently didn't boost interest. Across the nation, departments saw a "decrease in candidates of all ethnic groups," the chief said.
The public witnessed the attacks and "realized there is substantial danger associated with being a firefighter," he said. "They also realize there are other types of employment with similar pay with little or no risk." Yet, the military saw a jump in recruits, he said.
Common Council Majority Leader Carolyn McLaughlin has kept an eye on the minority issue.
"They have a list and on that list there are some African Americans and Latinos who have passed the exam," she said Friday, referring to a list generated by the June 2006 test. "We looked at the list and identified people of color. Mind you, they're not in the top three, and in order for them to be running this (new) test, that tells me they don't have enough people on the list that are ready and available to take those positions."
McLaughlin called for "a good-faith effort" in hiring from the current list, at least 25, if not 50 percent minorities. She also suggested focusing on getting young people interested.
The firefighters union supports diversity, president Sam Fresina said Friday. "But we support it being done in a way that maintains the level of our training and our competency. I don't want to see the bar lowered just to get minorities on the job. That doesn't do anybody any justice."
A recruitment table was set up at last month's MACC tournament at the Times Union Center, 150 letters went out to organizations - colleges, libraries, radio stations, minority groups and the state Labor Department. The chief has met with minority church and community leaders.
Applications are available at Hannaford supermarkets and Stewart's Shops; announcements are on public service TV channels and the Palace Theater marquee, fliers were passed out on the street and firefighters attended job fairs and visited high schools where graduating seniors are eligible to take the test.
Proposed is an emergency medical technician class for Albany High seniors to give them a leg up. Also planned is an Explorer Program. Mayor Jerry Jennings has joined in the recruitment campaign and initiated a cadets corps for the summer youth program - teens who would work in firehouses, ride on trucks, carry tools, pick up hoses and wash trucks.
The chief, who has 34 years of service, hopes the kids see the benefits. "You come to work every day and you get to help people," he said. "You leave with a good feeling because you helped people on their worst days, whether it's a house on fire, a medical call, whether they're trapped, or a baby is in distress."
The union supports getting young people involved.
"Our idea wasn't to stand out on the sidewalk and pass out fliers," Fresina said. "Our idea was to start a program where we get a curriculum established in Albany city schools and start teaching kids at a young age."
Firefighter Elston Mackey, a 22-year veteran who is black, said he and other firefighters were on a committee with city officials to form a cadet program, "and then all of a sudden we were shut out of the process." Firefighters need to be involved, he said.
"The chief is sincere in his desire to make a change, but until the department actually steps up and does a year-round recruitment for minorities," goals won't be met, Mackey said. "It's not a job traditionally that blacks have been interested in, and you have to be able to assure them that if they are committed to being a fire personnel, the opportunity will exist."Carol DeMare can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org