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What Color Is Fire?

The controversy surrounding a racially insensitive greeting card sent out by Alameda County firefighters has called attention to the lack of diversity among the department's employees.

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Last June, a video created for the new recruitment academy of the Alameda County Fire Department featured whooping and hollering, typical of the testosterone-fueled exuberance found at boot camps or college football games. Donning heavy firefighter coats and sturdy oversized helmets, department recruits high-fived each other amid fanning flames and dangerous situations. In a rapid-fire montage, new recruits described the obstacles they overcame during their departmental training. One firefighter said the rigorous training program helped instill "brotherhood" among the new firefighters.

"We were a really tight group," he said. "We went through a lot together. The closest we got just working together, day in and day out. Spending every day together. Eating lunch in the locker room just brought us together and formed that brotherhood that I'm excited to have for the rest of my entire career."

By the end of the 32-minute video, viewers might have noticed something else about the video. Participants appeared to be almost exclusively white men, although assessing the ethnicity of people based solely on their appearance in a video is hardly a science. Not a single Asian-American recruit nor woman was visible — not even in the background playing a bit part.

Fire departments across the country have typically been slow to diversify their ranks. But an incident at the Alameda County Fire Department last May involving the distribution of an offensive Chinese New Year's card that featured three Asian-American firefighters in coolie hats highlighted that department's lack of diversity. Despite Alameda County being one of the most richly diverse areas in the country, its fire department has struggled to keep pace with the region's changing demographics. The department remains overwhelmingly Caucasian and male.

The department serves residents of the unincorporated county and cities that contract with it for fire prevention — including Dublin, Emeryville, Newark, San Leandro, Union City, and the Berkeley and Livermore National Labs. Politicians and other advocates for Asian-Americans and Latinos believe the lack of diversity at the fire department puts minorities in harm's way, especially those with limited English-language proficiency.

"Alameda County is a diverse place," said San Leandro Councilmember Corina Lopez. "In these times we need people serving as firefighters that look like the communities they are serving and speak the same language they speak. It becomes a safety issue for the community."

Demographic data that the department provided its advisory commission shows that the agency still has a long way to go before it comes close to bridging the racial and gender gaps within almost all levels of its ranks.

The problem begins with its pool of job applicants, which included 333 candidates in the most recent round of firefighter recruitment examinations. More than half the applicants were non-Hispanic Caucasians, at 51 percent, with only 19 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Asian/Filipino, 7 percent mixed race, 5 percent African-American, and 3 percent Native or Pacific Islanders. The remaining applicants declined to state their ethnicity. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of applicants were male, at 94 percent.

The pool of applicants subsequently recruited by the department to interview for a job was scarcely more diverse. Within the 92 applicants selected for an interview, 49 percent were non-Hispanic Caucasians, only 15 percent Hispanic and 15 percent Asian/Filipino, 7 percent African-American, 4 percent mixed race, and 3 percent native. The gender breakdown was similar to that of the applicant pool: 93 percent male and 7 percent female.

However, the department did subsequently offer jobs to a slightly more diverse pool of 26 applicants. Only 42 percent of the new recruits were non-Hispanic Caucausians, with 16 percent Asian/Filipino, 15 percent Hispanic, 11 percent African-American, and 12 percent people of mixed race offered jobs. Eighty-five percent of those offered positions were male, and 15 percent female.

Alameda County Fire Chief David Rocha makes no excuses when it comes to his department's record of promoting diversity within its ranks. He admits that it is doing a poor job of attracting a diverse pool of applicants. He said there is now a concerted effort for the department to stoke interest in targeted minority groups, such as Asian Americans, through the use of preparatory academies and reserve programs. The department also is promoting workshops and getting the word out on social media. "When it comes to Asian and Pacific Islanders, we have not hit our numbers in applying," Rocha admitted in an interview.

Nonetheless, he noted that the department's employee profile is a legacy of almost 30 years of recruitment, hiring, and retention, calling attention to the duration of a typical firefighters' career. And of course, he said, positions within the department must be vacant for the process of promoting greater diversity to begin.

The department's September demographic profile still largely reflected its status quo. It employed 442 people, of whom 61 percent were non-Hispanic Caucasians, 12 percent were Hispanic, 11 percent were mixed race, 8 percent were African American, 7 percent were Asian, and 1 percent were Native or Pacific Islander. Meanwhile, 85 percent were male, with 15 percent female. But not all fire department employees actually fight fires, and the gender breakdown among the 90 employees who do other things was quite different. Fifty-three percent were women, and 47 percent were male.

Overall, Rocha defends his department's recent performance when it comes to hiring women and minorities. "We're better than most in the state, but we are not near the 52 percent of the available workforce of women," he said. He suggested the disparity between male and female employment at the fire department is not unique. "Other careers have similar data sets," he said.

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