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Advocates push to make Boston Fire Department more diverse

Only 19 of the department’s 1,474 firefighters are women; nearly three-quarters are white

Boston firefighters responded to the scene of a seven-alarm fire on Columbia Road last year.
Boston firefighters responded to the scene of a seven-alarm fire on Columbia Road last year.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Advocates, lawmakers, and a local group of firefighters of color pushed several measures on Monday to help diversify the Boston Fire Department, which has come under fire in recent years for being dominated by white men.

The aim of the advocacy is to make sure a new cadet program realizes its goal of diversifying the department. During a news conference conducted via Zoom and hosted by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, local leaders called for the cadet program to work with the Boston Society of the Vulcans, a nonprofit comprised of Black and Latinx firefighters, to boost its recruitment and retention efforts.

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“Boston Fire Department is the whitest public safety agency in Boston and that’s not new,” said Sophia Hall, a supervising attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights.

Last month, city authorities said only 19 of the department’s 1,474 firefighters were women and a little more than one-quarter were people of color. Black, Hispanic, and Asian residents constitute a majority of Boston’s population.

“It is extremely important that firefighters who have the lived experience be at the table to shape this policy and this program,” said City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who is running for mayor, during Monday’s news conference.

The cadet program is intended to recruit a diverse pool of candidates who could eventually be hired as firefighters.

The legislation that created the cadet program included a cap barring the Fire Department from using cadets to fill more than one-third of its total appointments each year. And advocates on Monday called for the city to hire the maximum number of cadets permitted.

The inaugural cadet class will not be eligible to be hired as firefighters for two years. And the Lawyers for Civil Rights argued the program will only be able to shift the department’s demographics if the city makes an “intentional and significant” effort to hire diverse cadets.

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Advocates said the cadet program should also develop clear residency requirements to enter. Residency, officials said on Monday, should be defined as having lived in Boston for at least five years.

Under the cadet program, which was signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker in December, the head of the Fire Department could appoint “any qualified citizen resident of Boston between the ages of 18 and 25 to the position of fire cadet.” It would initially exempt cadets from civil service rules, which govern firefighter hiring. After a cadet’s two-year tenure is finished, they would still have to pass the civil service exam to become firefighters. Critics have often complained the civil service rules, which include a preference for military veterans, have limited the department’s ability to add diversity.

In a statement, State Representative Chynah Tyler called the program “a valuable step in reducing barriers created by civil service and ensuring that these positions are available to all.”

Darrell Higginbottom, the president of the Vulcans and a Boston Fire Department captain, said his organization advocated for the cadet program for more than a decade. He indicated that there was more work left to do, calling the current civil service law flawed and in need of reform. He added that his organization hopes to implement “a formalized mentorship program to accompany this new initiative.”

“This is not a victory lap,” he said during the news conference.

The fire commissioner is responsible for deciding when the city accepts fire cadets, who are limited to administrative work until they are hired as firefighters, and how many are taken on.

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John “Jack” Dempsey, the city’s fire commissioner, said in a statement the cadet program is an important tool “to broaden recruitment and outreach for a firefighter workforce that is reflective of the community they serve.” Diversity and a fair and equitable workplace remain a top priority for the department, Dempsey said.

”In the coming weeks, I will be forming an internal advisory group to begin the discussion on the structure and foundation of a fire cadet program,” he said. “Key stakeholders will be invited for comment and input as we develop the cadet program.”

A spokesman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Nick Martin, said in a statement that the passage of the fire cadet legislation last month was only the start of the implementation process.

”We know there is more work to be done, and we look forward to continued collaboration with our city, state, and community partners, especially Black, Latinx, and women members of the Boston Fire Department, to achieve a shared vision for success,” Martin said.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.