ACLU Investigates Fire Rescue Hiring

Matthew Gruchow, Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), March 2, 2009

The Sioux Falls office of the American Civil Liberties Union has opened an inquiry into the recruitment and hiring practices of the city’s fire department, which has only two minority firefighters out of 178 on the force.

The civil rights agency is trying to determine whether Sioux Falls Fire Rescue’s procedures have led to a disparity in minority employees, its Sioux Falls-based lawyer said this week.

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However, the fire department says its recruitment and hiring policies are highly structured and controlled in order to hire the most qualified applicants and to minimize the potential for ethnic prejudice and discrimination.

City human resources officials who administer the firefighter testing and conduct the interviews say they have sound, transparent polices that do not take ethnicity into consideration. And Sioux Falls Fire Rescue Chief Donn Hill said the department tries to incorporate minorities both as department recruiters and as potential employees.

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The ACLU began its investigation after learning about the case of Jamie Hamley, a 33-year-old member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who had applied to the department only to fail an oral communications test and was disqualified.

Hamley, college educated and with previous firefighting experience and training, said he saw a younger, less educated and experienced white colleague advance to the next phase of testing. Then, on April 19, 2006, Hamley filed a discrimination charge with the South Dakota Division of Human Rights. It was dismissed Jan. 1, 2007.

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That disparity exists in part because of the low turnover in the department, which slows how the demographics of the department change from year to year, Hill said.

“Most of the people that start at the department retire from the department,” he said. “So it’ll take a long time before the department would begin to match the makeup of the larger community.”

The fire department’s application and testing process includes a written examination, physical abilities tests, behavioral assessments, credit check, oral interview and psychiatric exam.

An applicant must pass every test to move on in the hiring process, where sometimes fractions of a point allow applicants to be disqualified, Hill said. {snip}

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But firefighting experience and training are not taken into consideration during the hiring process, because new firefighters are put through standardized department training, Hill said.

“We train all of our firefighters as if they had no experience,” he said.

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