Blacks challenge St. Louis County fire districts' hiring

Monday, June 3, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- An association of black firefighters has filed an employment-discrimination complaint against each of St. Louis County's 42 fire departments, alleging the lack of blacks requires court intervention.

As chairman of the Firefighters League for the Advancement of Minority Equalization, University City firefighter Airest Wilson hopes FLAME's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint eventually compels the departments to hire one black firefighter for each white one.

FLAME's goal: Have blacks comprise 10 percent of each department in St. Louis County, where the association says the number of black firefighters has barely grown since 1990.

Of the 42 fire departments serving St. Louis County, 22 have no black firefighters and nine have just one. Moline, Jennings, Black Jack and Spanish Lake all serve majority black populations but have a combined four black firefighters. In its nearly 50-year history, the Spanish Lake Fire Protection District has never hired a black firefighter, though it serves a district that is 54 percent black.

St. Louis County has a black population of 19 percent, though the percentage of blacks on its fire departments is less than 4 percent. The city of St. Louis' department is 42 percent black.

FLAME's complaint also names Local 2665, which represents about 1,100 of the county's 1,428 firefighters. The complaint alleges that the union's influence has contributed to the lack of black firefighters, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday. About 30 union members are black.

'Old boy network'

Some county fire chiefs say they have tried to hire more blacks but that few blacks apply or they have trouble finding qualified candidates. Many departments say they look for applicants who have paramedic licenses because so many service calls are medical ones. Some departments say they won't hire a person without the paramedic license.

Wilson said Local 2665 is too much of a "good old boy network," hiring the people the union wants to hire -- especially in some of the county's 24 fire protection districts, run by three-member boards. If the union successfully can elect two of the three board members, it can have a say in who gets hired, Wilson said.

"I'm not going to lie about it, we're very political," said Dennis Murray, Local 2665's longtime head. He added that the union has supported "a ton" of fire board members and council members over the years.

"When we elect our friends, we really appreciate it if they would hire active members that are going to be good firefighters," Murray said, adding that the union supports hiring the most-qualified people.

"If they're blaming us for stopping the hiring, I think they're wrong," Murray said of FLAME.

Who you know

Still, blacks say that getting a firefighter's job in St. Louis County is often a case of who you know.

Only one department in the county has a program to identify young blacks interested in fire service, then paying their way through paramedic school and the county fire academy. Believing its fire department needed more diversity, University City about 11 years ago started a cadet program modeled after a similar program in the city's police department.

"It's beneficial for us," University Fire Chief Robert Metcalf said of the program, which six cadets have completed to become firefighter-paramedics.

Murray doesn't dispute that the county fire service, like the police profession, has a strong family legacy. Murray himself has three sons in local fire service, two at Community in North County and one in St. Charles County.

At the latest graduation of 23 recruits from the St. Louis County Fire Academy, at least five either were a son, nephew or brother of local fire chiefs or firefighters. A sixth is the son of a local city manager.

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