Diversity Worries Set Off Alarms

April M. Washington, Rocky Mountain News (Denver), Aug. 6

Five-year Denver Fire Department veteran Ahmid Nunn longs for the time when he doesn’t carry the dubious distinction of being the last black firefighter hired by the city.

He longs for the day when he can tell the black teens he coaches at Montbello High School, those who would like to follow in his footsteps, that their chances of wearing a firefighter’s badge are better than winning the lottery.

“As a coach, you tell them that they can be anything they want if they work hard and set their minds to it,” said Nunn, 32. “So it’s tough to turn around and say to my kids who ask me what it takes to become a firefighter for Denver that their chances are 1 in 500.”

The odds are actually better than that, but not by much.

In the past six years, Denver has hired 272 firefighters. Fifty were Hispanic, two were American Indians, two were Asian, 10 were women and 203 were white males. Five black firefighters were hired in 1999 and 2000, but none since.

In all, the department has 916 firefighters. Of those 54 are black, 196 are Hispanic, 14 are American Indians, nine are Asians, 37 are women and remaining 606 are white males.

“It’s absolutely embarrassing that we haven’t hired an African-American in five years,” Denver Fire Chief Larry Trujillo said. “There’s no excuse for it. We’ve done well with hiring Hispanics and others, but not as well as we would like.”

{snip}

Some changes being proposed or already implemented:

A consulting firm, CWH Management Solutions of Englewood, has been hired to develop new testing procedures. The company has a track record in crafting tests that have led to increased hiring of minority firefighters elsewhere.

Applicants will be allowed to complete each step of the testing process before they are eliminated as potential hires. Currently, if they fail one segment, they are disqualified.

The city may establish a board made up of firefighters, civil service commissioners and human resource experts to conduct interviews to better determine an applicant’s overall character and suitability for the job.

Denver may put in place a process in which candidates’ past transgressions—if relatively minor—could be considered on a case-by-case basis. Now, past drug use and felony and some misdemeanor convictions result in automatic disqualification.

“The bottom line is that we are looking at a number of things we think we can change so we can attract qualified minority applicants,” LaCabe said.

“We haven’t been able to directly identify one particular thing that has had an adverse impact on minorities. There’s a number of stumbling blocks in what Civil Service had been doing that we are changing.”

Laying the blame

One of those stumbling blocks was the testing process, Trujillo said.

He laid blame at the foot of the Civil Service Commission, which instituted a computerized testing system five years ago that he believes was culturally biased and crafted in a way that largely benefited white applicants.

“I can honestly tell you that I would not be sitting here as chief today with the rules that are being enforced today,” he said. “Let me make it clear, I’m not sitting here advocating that we lower the standards. I’m simply trying to create a testing and hiring process that’s fair to everybody.”

{snip}

This chart shows applicants’ scores in spring 2004 who met the cutoff score of 86. Candidates at this point had passed the initial screening, a computerized written test and a video test.

Score

Black

Hispanic

White

Asian

Indian

Undetermined

98

0

0

1

0

0

1

95

0

0

3

0

0

1

93

0

0

5

0

0

2

92

0

0

7

0

0

2

91

0

0

7

0

0

4

90

0

0

12

0

0

4

89

0

1

13

0

0

5

88

0

1

26

0

0

7

87

0

1

31

0

0

8

86

0

4

44

0

0

11

Source: Denver Fire Department

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