A push for minority firefighters - LancasterOnline: News

A push for minority firefighters

City Council to consider changes aimed at increasing number of city residents and Spanish-speaking recruits on fire bureau

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Posted: Sunday, April 8, 2012 8:05 pm | Updated: 7:50 pm, Thu Sep 12, 2013.

Lancaster city officials see an opportunity in the near future to have city firefighters better reflect the population they serve.

At the recommendation of the city Fire Civil Service Board, City Council members will weigh a resolution to change hiring rules to favor city residents and Spanish speakers.

Fire Chief Tim Gregg said he also plans to reach out to black and Hispanic groups to recruit applicants.

Deputy Fire Chief Sue Warchola - one of only two women firefighters - will lead an effort to recruit more women, he said.

"I think it's a way to improve service, to improve safety," Gregg said in presenting the proposed changes to City Council members last week.

A vote on the changes could come at council's meeting on Tuesday.

The push to rewrite the hiring rules comes as the city expects as many as one-third of its firefighters to retire within the next five years.

Five positions are expected to be filled in the next few months, Gregg said.

The proposed rule changes would:

• Replace the multiple-choice test used for the last three decades with a video-based test.

• Allow as many as 10 points to be added to test scores for city residents, with one point per year of residency, up from the current five points granted to city residents.

• Grant five points to applicants who can speak English and a second, "targeted" language that is spoken by at least 5 percent of city residents.

A five-point bonus for military veterans remains in place.

The lowest-paid firefighter in the city, a firefighter II, is budgeted to receive an annual salary of $52,816 this year.

Gregg said there are only two Spanish speakers among the Fire Bureau's 71 active firefighters.

Yet he pointed to the enrollment of the School District of Lancaster, where 65 percent of students are Hispanic, and said there is a clear need for Spanish-speaking firefighters.

He said Franklin & Marshall College and Millersville University professors will be asked to evaluate the fluency of applicants who claim to be bilingual.

The residency bonus comes six years after a change in state law. Previously, firefighters had to live in the city to be hired.

Since then, Gregg said, applicants frequently have come from outside the area and even outside the state.

Now, in addition to Gregg, only six city firefighters live in the city, the chief said.

That's a safety issue, say city officials, because the city's contract with the fire union requires that off-duty firefighters be called to back on-duty firefighters during major fires.

The contract allows firefighters to live within a 13-mile radius of the city. But firefighters who are city residents can be expected to respond more quickly in an emergency than those who live in outlying townships, said Mayor Rick Gray.

City residents should also be expected to better relate to and communicate with other city residents, Gregg said. And they would be more familiar with the city's layout and neighborhoods than an applicant from outside the area, he added.

"We really want to keep the jobs here," Gregg said.

The video-based test has shown to have equal impact on minority test-takers and others, Gregg maintained. Minority candidates have fared less well on the multiple choice test.

"We're not testing people's ability to take a test. We're testing people's ability to be firefighters," Gray said.

Gregg insisted the change was not "dumbing down" the test. Rather, he said, the math, reading and mechanical aptitude questions are actually more difficult.

The test also includes personality questions designed to identify applicants who will work well as a member of a team.

The test likely will be administered in mid-June, he said.

Applicants who score well on the test will be called back for interviews and physical agility testing, likely in July, Gregg said.

To prepare city applicants, Gregg said he plans to work with leaders of the city's Spanish American Civic Association and the Lancaster branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to host a preparatory course next month.

Gregg has also sought to have information about Fire Bureau recruiting broadcast on SACA's Spanish language radio station.

Information also will be available on the city's website, wwwicityoflancasterpa.com. Click on the "job listings" link for firefighter application information.

bharris@lnpnews.com

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