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Boston Fire’s newest recruits include just one woman in a class of 90

Boston firefighters battled a 4-alarm blaze in Dorchester last May.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Boston Fire Department, criticized in recent years for being overwhelmingly white and male, continues to struggle with diversity. The latest evidence: Its current recruiting class of 90 includes only one woman.

Mayor Michelle Wu’s office confirmed that number this week. A spokeswoman said the current academy class is slated to graduate at the end of June or early July.

According to a recent Globe analysis of the city workforce, more than 94 percent of the Fire Department’s 1,600 workers are male, and 72 percent are white. One Fire Department supervisor this week suggested that when counting only sworn fire personnel in the department — meaning actual firefighters — the department appears even more male-dominated.

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Boston Fire Commissioner John “Jack” Dempsey suggested in a Thursday statement that civil service rules handcuff the department in its attempts to diversify. Critics have called the current civil service law that governs firefighter hiring flawed and in need of reform, with some pointing to a military veterans preference as a significant hurdle for diversifying the force.

Dempsey noted that the class of 90 includes 22 recruits of color, including individuals who speak Spanish, Haitian Creole, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Cape Verdean Creole.

Black, Latino, and Asian residents constitute a majority of Boston’s population, while women make up 52 percent of city residents, according to census figures.

Mayor Michelle Wu, in a Thursday statement, called the fire academy class numbers “unacceptable.”

“We must ensure that our city workforce reflects Boston’s neighborhoods and the residents we serve, including our public safety agencies,” said Wu. “Our administration is committed to breaking down barriers to expand opportunities for women and people of color to join our Fire Department and every department in city government.”

The makeup and culture of the department has come under scrutiny in recent years. In 2019, female firefighters and local officials blasted a city-commissioned report that found a “male-dominated” culture resistant to change in the department. Critics of the report said it recycled old recommendations and did not go far enough to address systemic issues.

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The report was the product of an outside counsel’s review of the department’s handling of harassment and discrimination allegations brought by women on the force.

In January 2020, a Boston firefighter was found guilty of assaulting a female colleague, in an incident that underscored the dwindling number of female firefighters in Boston and the hostility some say they have long endured, the Globe reported at the time. The paltry number of women on the force remains a problem.

This week, Darrell Higginbottom, a Boston fire captain who also serves as the president of Boston Society of Vulcans, a group that represents Black and brown firefighters, went over the demographics of the department during a City Council hearing focused on the city’s hiring practices. He said of 1,470 sworn personnel, 72 percent are white, 19 percent are Black, 8 percent are Hispanic, and 1 percent are Asian.

About 1 percent of the sworn personnel are female, he said.

Of the lone female recruit currently in the academy, Higginbottom said, “That’s unacceptable in a progressive city.”

A career in public safety in Boston is a good job, said Higginbottom, as he listed the average salaries for various ranks in the department: $157,000 for a firefighter, $182,000 for a lieutenant, $188,000 for a captain, $228,000 for a district chief, and $270,000 for a deputy chief.

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Of the department’s 59 district chiefs, just four are Black and two are Hispanic, Higginbottom said, while none of its current deputy chiefs are people of color.

The department, which dates back to 1678, has never had a commissioner who is not a white man. In 2019, the city appointed its first-ever Black chief of operations for Boston Fire, and the department also named its first female district chief that year.

Dempsey, the city’s current fire commissioner, took charge in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Martin J. Walsh was still the city’s mayor. Dempsey continued in that role when Walsh left City Hall last year to become US labor secretary and Kim Janey took the mayoral reins on an acting basis. He has stayed on under Wu, who took office in November.

There have been attempts to diversify the city’s firefighting force. Dempsey’s predecessor as fire commissioner, Joseph Finn, hired a diversity recruitment officer, a first for the department, and state authorities in recent years approved a fire cadet program. That program was intended to recruit a diverse pool of candidates who could eventually be hired as firefighters. Governor Charlie Baker signed the fire cadet home-rule petition proposal at the end of 2020, but the program has yet to start, as Boston Fire is still in the planning stages for the initiative, a Wu spokeswoman said this week.

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Dempsey, in a Thursday statement, indicated the department will turn its attention to finally getting that initiative off the ground. “As COVID subsides, we will be able to put more resources and effort in properly implementing the program,” he said.

Under the cadet program, the head of the Fire Department can appoint “any qualified citizen resident of Boston between the ages of 18 and 25 to the position of fire cadet.” It exempts cadets from classification under the civil service laws, but in order to become full-fledged firefighters, cadets would still have to take the civil service exam.

And on Thursday, Dempsey echoed past sentiments regarding how civil service regulations can limit the department’s ability to add diversity to its ranks, saying, “the Fire Department is required to follow civil service law when hiring.”

“We always welcome any opportunity to hire women and residents that reflect the diversity of the city,” said Dempsey in his statement.


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